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State Lawmakers Consider Johns Hopkins' Plea for Police

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State lawmakers are set to consider Friday whether Johns Hopkins University should establish its own private police department, an effort that has been met with resistance from university faculty, staff, students, alumni and neighbors.

In explaining why the university needs its own police force, Hopkins officials point to rising crime rates near its three campuses in Baltimore. In particular, school officials say the East Baltimore campus, which houses Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Medicine, Nursing and Public Health schools, saw a 1000-percent increase in aggravated assaults.

The university employs about 1,000 security officers, the majority of whom are unarmed and lack the authority to make arrests, said Melissa Hyatt, Johns Hopkins vice president for security.

“If there’s a crime that occurs on campus, these officers are generally in the position that they make observations and they get on the radio, articulate what they see, give a description of an individual, and then have to wait for a police officer to arrive,” Hyatt said.

The security force includes about 25 off-duty Baltimore Police officers and Sheriff’s deputies. School officials hope to replace these with about 100 new Johns Hopkins police officers.

One benefit to hiring police officers who are dedicated to Hopkins full-time is that they will be more familiar with the campuses and better able to respond quickly to an emergency, such as an active shooter, Hyatt said.

And, she said, it will be easier to ensure their officers have certain types of training.

“We want to make sure that our personnel, if they encounter someone, are prepared as well as possible for that encounter, that they have the tools for de-escalation, that they’re using force as a last resort,” she said.

This is the second year Hopkins has sought legislative approval for a police department. Last year, the bill didn’t get past the committees.

After the General Assembly session ended in April, Hopkins held open forums and met with student groups and neighborhood associations. The school also doubled the number of lobbyists it employs in Annapolis from four to eight.

The effort has convinced some.

“There were a lot of questions in the neighborhood,” said Anne Perkins, co-president of the Tuscany-Canterbury Neighborhood Association. “We’re located just north of University Parkway, just north of the Homewood campus, so what Hopkins does about things affects us.”

Perkins said university officials met with the neighborhood association in the fall. Afterward, the association voted unanimously to support Hopkins’ initiative.

But groups from other nearby neighborhoods — Abell and Remington, for example — are not supporting it.

And the opposition is mounting. More than 100 faculty have signed an open letter opposing the creation of a Johns Hopkins police force, and a poll by the Student Government Association found that nearly three-quarters of students also oppose it.

Many opponents worry the new police would engage in racial profiling, making black staff members and even some black students feel less safe.

“I was talking to a group of black men — students of color, all males — last week. And none of them supported the idea of Hopkins having their own police force because all of them have police stories,” said Lester Spence, a political science and Africana studies professor at Johns Hopkins who signed the open letter opposing the police.

He said the proposed police would widen the existing divide between Hopkins and the surrounding communities — a divide that many university staff members cross daily.

“Most of their staff are black. Almost all of their custodial staff is black, but the campus itself is not,” Spence said. “So you’re talking about this population that comes in, they’re black, they’re working class, and they’re automatically kind of placed in another category.”

The ACLU of Maryland also opposes the bill. Senior staff attorney David Rocah accused Hopkins of misleading the public in how it has been selling the bill. The university says it’s about public safety, but Rocah says, not exactly.

“It’s about shielding Hopkins and its security force from liability for their misconduct,” Rocah said.

He said Hopkins’ existing security officers already have the authority under common law to make arrests if they see someone commit a crime, and the off-duty police within that security force can carry guns.

But both Hopkins and the security officers are liable when one of the officers makes a mistake, while police are immune from that liability, Rocah said.

“Really what this bill is about is giving Johns Hopkins and its private security force the same kind of immunities from liability which are given to police and which have helped create a crisis of police accountability in this country,” he said.

Sen. Mary Washington, whose district includes Hopkins’ Homewood campus, said the legislation authorizing Hopkins to create its police department doesn’t have sufficient measures to hold the would-be police and the university accountable.

The bill creates an “accountability board” made up of students, faculty, staff and community members, but it has an advisory role. Washington said she wants it to have veto power.

The Hopkins police would also have more autonomy than the police at the state’s public universities, she said.

“If something was happening in the Towson University police force or in Morgan State University police force, we as the legislature could hold back funds,” Washington said. “That would not be possible in a private police force.”

Washington said she also worries that allowing the university to create this police force would set a bad precedent.

“Hopkins is a private entity. No private entity has been authorized to establish its own separate police force in the state of Maryland,” she said.

If the legislature allows this, she said, what’s to stop Under Armour, Amazon, or a coalition of local businesses from trying to create their own police as well?

Baltimore City’s House delegation is to take up the bill Friday morning, while the House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees have scheduled hearings later Friday.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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