Legislation authorizing Johns Hopkins University to establish its own police force progressed in the state Senate on Wednesday.
During the hour-long debate on Wednesday, Baltimore City senators Jill Carter and Mary Washington were the lone voices of opposition. Together they proposed nine different amendments, all of which failed.
The university has said it needs the proposed department of 100 employees to protect its campuses from high levels of violent crime in Baltimore. But Washington, whose district includes Hopkins’ Homewood campus, said the university has misled the public on what the bill would do.
“They have promoted to the Baltimore City that they will be a full police force that will help with all the concerns of its population around violent crime,” she said. “And yet this police department will have a force that will only handle theft, burglary and motor vehicle taking.”
They will not handle sexual assault, rape, murder, aggravated assault, robbery, larceny or arson, she said.
“It is simply a security force with guns,” Washington said.
She worried about the message approving a private police force sends to Baltimore residents — “that if you don’t like the police force, if it’s not serving your needs, then you need to get some money and get a billionaire and get a $7.7 billion operation to stand behind you and get your own police force — you’re on your own.”
Hopkins would be the first private entity in the state with its own police authority. Washington expressed concerns about what that means for accountability. Unlike the police who work for the public universities, they won’t be responsible to taxpayers or elected officials.
But Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Bobby Zirkin, whose committee considered the bill, said the legislation has plenty of accountability measures.
“I’ve never seen more accountability in a piece of legislation,” he said. “All the bills that we’ve seen over the years about police accountability, every aspect of it is in this bill for one small police force.”
Like with the Baltimore Police, complaints would go through the Civilian Review Board. The Hopkins police would also receive feedback from a new “Accountability Board,” which includes community representatives.
But Zirkin said the biggest check on the new police comes from lawsuits.
“If something happens with a public police force or a public entity for that matter, Baltimore City is capped at the damages they would have to pay. So if they run over somebody with a vehicle, if a person ends up being a paraplegic, it’s $400,000. It’s a hard cap on damages,” Zirkin said.
Lawsuits against Hopkins, on the other hand, would not have the same limitations.
Hopkins’ proposal has elicited passionate testimony on both sides of the issue, even just this week.
On Tuesday, Congressman Elijah Cummings came to Annapolis to urge the Baltimore House delegation to approve the bill. A group of Hopkins students were later ejected from the same meeting when they began protesting inside the hearing room.
“We wanted to make sure that it was known that they’re going against the will of 75 percent of undergrad students who said that we don’t want this bill, the long list of faculty that’s growing, the number of neighborhood and community associations, the Nurses United union that’s currently fighting Hopkins, the food workers’ union that is currently working on campus and being underpaid,” said Andrea Fraser, one of the protesting students. She’s getting her Ph.D. at Hopkins, and she owns a home near the Homewood Campus.
In a written statement, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins praised the Senate for its vote on Wednesday.
“We believe a Johns Hopkins Police Department can be a model of constitutional community policing that has more public and community oversight than any other Maryland law enforcement agency,” the statement says.
The bill could get a final vote in the Senate as early as Thursday. The House version has not yet gotten out of committee.
If it gets to Gov. Larry Hogan, he is likely to sign it.
"The governor believes Johns Hopkins should have the ability to employ their own security force to protect students, faculty, staff, and visitors on their campus, and is supportive of partnerships like this to help make Baltimore City a safer place,” spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill wrote in a statement.