A few months ago, while I was walking from a parking lot to a building at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, I heard a car crash about a block away. The crash was between two cars at an intersection about 150 meters from the parking lot. I looked at the security man as he just stood there, looking in the direction of the crash, and then I ran towards the accident.
As it turns out, the accident was not that bad. The two drivers almost went after each other physically, though. One thought the other was on the phone and distracted when they ran the stop sign. The other thought the first driver was going too fast and caused them to miscalculate crossing the intersection. As I stood between the two of them, asking them to calm down, I looked in the direction of the parking lot. A small group of security guards just looked at us.
Eventually, Baltimore City police showed up. It was then that I left and went to my building to work on my dissertation… I also fired off an email to the Dean. I explained to her that none of the security guards did anything at all to come help. They just stood there and gawked. I doubted whether they even called the police. (I called 911 as I ran toward the accident.)
This all happened at a time when the Johns Hopkins University leadership was trying very hard to get permission from Maryland to have an armed police force at the campuses (medical and academic) around the city. Many opposed the idea for different reasons. Some agreed with it, for their own reasons.
Me? At first, I agreed with the idea. It seemed reasonable to me that the school should have a police force just like so many other colleges and universities do. Then I started listening to the opposing side, and then I got deep into my doctoral research. There are things about Baltimore that cannot be ignored.
Baltimore is deeply segregated among racial lines. Entire neighborhoods are populated by only white or only black residents. Few neighborhoods are mixed, and it just so happens that the black neighborhoods are the most disadvantaged. They’re disadvantaged because there is a still lingering institutional racism that we could discuss at a later point… Believe me, it would be a long discussion.
That segregation has brought with it a lot of resentment toward the police department from the poorest and most marginalized communities in Baltimore. Why? Because they are disproportionately targeted for arrests and questioning under the idea that it is their residents who are the most likely to be criminals. (Crime rates may be higher in poorer neighborhoods, but it’s not their racial makeup that dictates this. It’s the poverty.)
Slap on top of this a Baltimore that leads the world in terms of per capita homicides among major cities. Why is this happening? My research points to poverty and urban disorder (e.g. abandoned buildings, dilapidated infrastructure) as potential causes for increased homicide rates. Other research goes further. Other research points to the opioid epidemic and the high number of people using and abusing opioids (especially heroin and fentanyl) on a daily basis around Baltimore.
All those drugs are not free. People from in and around Baltimore buy millions of dollars of drugs, and those millions are being sought by the poorest in the city. After all, if you didn’t finish high school and can’t get an honest job because you were once arrested by the police for, say, standing at the corner with your friends, then your only hope is to sell drugs or work for those who sell drugs.
When you sell drugs, you have to defend your turf. Since selling drugs is illegal — unless you’re a big pharmaceutical corporation — your only recourse when someone wants to take your business is violence. If enough people are walking around with guns to protect their business, you’re probably more inclined to get a gun yourself to defend yourself. And you’re likely to get a gun illegally and use it against someone else or yourself.
It is this very violence that Mr. Michael Bloomberg, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and major donor (hence the “Bloomberg School of Public Health”), is citing as a reason why an armed police force is needed at the university campuses around Baltimore. This is from the Baltimore Sun:
“Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire ex-mayor of New York and benefactor of the Johns Hopkins University, said Tuesday it’s “ridiculous” the institution doesn’t have an armed police force.
“When you have a city that has the murder rate that Baltimore has, I think it’s ridiculous to think that they shouldn’t be armed,” Bloomberg said of the Hopkins security force.
I know for a fact that Mr. Bloomberg has funded a lot of the research into gun violence being done at the university. (He did not fund any of my research. My research was funded, in part, by the Brown Scholarship in Community Health.) That research, and my research, has shown that victims of violence in Baltimore are not the university students and staff. They typical victim of gun violence is an African American male between 15 and 35 years of age living in the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore. The relatively wealthier, whiter, students at JHU, or the people working at the different campuses, are definitely not the typical victims.
Do crimes against JHU students and staff happen? Of course they do, but they’re at a much smaller proportion and severity than it happens to a child growing up in deep poverty. (That kind of poverty is mostly associated with “third world” countries but is alive and well in America in 2019.) And the solution to those crimes is not more police with more guns and more diving lines between the community and the law enforcers.
Imagine a police force at Hopkins that will not go 150 meters out to help because it’s not their jurisdiction… Or imagine a police force that is suspicious of anyone who doesn’t fit the description of the typical university student. What will that do? How can we assure that won’t happen?
Why this whole thing has become a priority for the university leadership above a lot of other more pressing issues is beyond me. Perhaps someone important had something stolen or was on the receiving end of some crime at one of the campuses? It certainly seems to me that there is some pressure coming from somewhere, demanding an armed police force that is separate from the Baltimore City Police Department.
I wish that Mr. Bloomberg would listen to the evidence on why Baltimore is so violent, and that he put efforts into fighting that more than just applying another level of boundaries between the university and the community. A good basic education, a living wage, and opportunities to prosper go a longer way to making a city safer than just throwing more cops and more guns at it.
Mr. Bloomberg, don’t segregate Baltimore any further. Help us integrate it… And let’s use science and reason to do so.
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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