There’s a bill in the Maryland State Assembly that will allow Johns Hopkins University to have its own police force. From The Baltimore Sun:
“The legislation already has the backing of several Baltimore lawmakers, who said it will increase safety in the city without costing taxpayer dollars.
Hopkins officials said Monday in a message to university community members that they have been mulling the idea for months, and believe it would bring the university in line with similar institutions across the country.
“The safety of our campus communities is a matter of utmost concern for Johns Hopkins, and the idea of a university police department has been suggested to us with increased urgency over the past year, given the challenges of urban crime here in Baltimore and the threat of active shooters in educational and health care settings,” Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels and Paul B. Rothman, dean of the school’s medical faculty, wrote. “Johns Hopkins’ current security program is unusual among its peers; almost every other urban research university, across the country and in Baltimore, has a university police department as part of its security operation.”
The university maintains its Homewood campus in North Baltimore, as well as its medical campus alongside the Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. The proposed police force would provide security at both locations, officials said.
Baltimore has endured more than 300 homicides in each of the past three years, while other violent crime has increased as well. Before 2015, the city hadn’t had 300 or more homicides in a single year since 1999.”
As you might expect, this idea isn’t going over well with some student groups. From another article in The Baltimore Sun:
“But at the forum held on the school’s East Baltimore campus, students and teachers questioned whether crime has really gone up in the area, or simply if people thought that it had. They asked how a new police force would affect area residents, many of whom already view the institution with suspicion.
Some asked why Hopkins would want to enter into a partnership with the Baltimore Police Department, given the recent Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal and problems like those outlined in the Department of Justice report.
Naadiya Hutchinson, 20, an undergraduate student, said she wanted to know what training officers would receive to avoid racial profiling.
“I really want to make sure that Hopkins is doing the best practices possible,” she said.”
At a gun violence panel discussion on Friday, a couple of students mentioned this plan for a university police force, calling it a “militarization” of the institution, and stating their concern that such a police force may translate to more friction with the community. There was recently also a march to protest the idea. From the Johns Hopkins News-Letter:
“Many have expressed concerns that a campus police force would further damage relations between the University and the Baltimore community and would threaten the safety of students, particularly students of color. Others, however, argue that a Hopkins police force would better protect students and reduce crime on and around campus.
The protest was organized by Students Against Private Police, a coalition of 11 student groups including Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Students for Environmental Action (SEA) and the Black Student Union (BSU).
Protesters shouted chants like “No justice / no peace / no private police,” “Black lives matter,” “Ronny D loves BPD” and “Bad for Baltimore / Bad for Hop / Pay taxes, not cops!”
Junior Chisom Okereke, the vice president of the BSU, added that she is worried about how the proposed police force would treat black students at Hopkins.
“Being a black student on this campus means that it is assumed by law enforcement that you do not attend this institution or are simply up to no good,” she said. “Partnering with the Baltimore Police Department, arguably the most corrupt police department in the country, shows a complete disregard for students of color on this campus that would otherwise be brutalized if they lived just a few blocks down the street.””
Opponents to this plan do make valid arguments, in my opinion. The relationships between the police and the community in Baltimore is strained, to say the least. In a city that is over 60% Black, only about 6% of JHU undergraduate students are Black. (I couldn’t find the exact number of Black graduate students, though a report on graduate student diversity states that 20% of graduate students are from underrepresented minorities.) It is a fair assumption that a poorly trained police force might see, say, a Black teen in a hoodie on campus late at night, and they might make the wrong assumptions or begin a series of events that could be tragic.
I highlighted “poorly trained” because that’s where the problems begin. A professional police officer who knows the community they serve is very unlikely to be involved in a dangerous situation with a member of that community unless the community member is doing something truly suspicious and/or criminal. Professional police officers are a delight to talk to. I’ll happily hand over my license and registration to them and then chat about Ebola. (Long story.)
At the same gun violence forum, Dr. Daniel Webster answered a question from a student about the proposal for a university police force. His opinion was that students and faculty had a chance to give input and direct how the university police force would be created, staffed, trained and held accountable. Unlike the Baltimore City Police Department, whose structure and culture are already set (albeit changing and being reformed), the new police force would be created with the students in mind and, thus, their fears could be addressed as it related to how such a police force would interact with the community.
He said that if an event were to happen at the building we were in, we — students and faculty — would not know when the Baltimore police would react, how, and if they would understand who was a student and who was not. On the other hand, a university police force built from scratch would be held accountable to the students and the faculty and staff. We would have a say in shaping it, and we would know what to expect should the unexpected occur.
The thing about the two arguments is that the argument against kind of assumes the worst case scenario while the argument for assumes the best case scenario. The truth is somewhere in the middle. The truth will likely be that a university police force would have in it bad apples that won’t give a damn about some of the rules/regulations, and they’re sure to make mistakes. (Humans, amirite?) And the lack of a police force does put in doubt what would happen should an active shooter situation happen, or a big crime within the school, or something like that.
I wanted to tell the students in the discussion that they’re not likely to be the victims of crime in Baltimore City. They were not Black, poor men between the ages of 18 and 35, dealing in drugs or committing crime because of the institutional racism so deep in the DNA of the city. They’re not living in the neighborhoods that are struggling with crime and lack of services. The kind of victimization they’ll face has more to do with petty theft of their property when they’re not looking, or sexual assault from someone they know… And even those are highly unlikely. But victims of homicide like the record number of victims from the last couple of years? Not really.
But I do side with Dr. Webster about being at the very beginning of this project will allow the students to have a ton of impact on how that police force develops. The students will get to form how that police force relates to the community. They can actually help build a police force that keeps the campus and the neighborhoods around it safe, and it has great ties to the community. Heck, they can push so that the police force members originate from that community. And, again, while the risk of violent crime is low on campus and on the students of the university, having a well-trained police force instead of (or along with) unarmed security seems like a good move to me.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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