For years, a fence stood between the Johns Hopkins medical campus and the East Baltimore community. While the physical barrier has been torn down, Johns Hopkins is now pursuing a new way to insulate itself from the surrounding community: a private police force. The police department swelled into a contentious issue over the last year among students and community members alike, as Johns Hopkins moved forward in its second attempt to create a force to patrol the Homewood, East Baltimore and Peabody campuses. On April 19, Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill making it legal to create the police department. A 100-person Johns Hopkins force could be in place as soon as July 1 of this year.
Currently, the university employs about 1,100 security officers, who perform tasks such as monitoring buildings and staffing corner security boxes, but they cannot make arrests or carry deadly weapons. Johns Hopkins also hires armed off-duty Baltimore Police Department (BPD) officers who do have the power to make arrests. The private force would phase out the staffing of off-duty BPD officers, and would only have jurisdiction over theft, burglary and motor vehicle theft — no other crimes. Melissa Hyatt, a BPD officer of 20 years, would head the force. Johns Hopkins officials say the police force is a step in efforts to keep students and employees safe, that it could take pressure off the BPD to patrol Johns Hopkins’ large properties, and that many of its peer institutions, such as the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University have private forces. Of large universities, 70 percent have police forces, but only 36 percent of private universities have them. The Johns Hopkins force would have a memorandum of understanding with the BPD, and an accountability board composed of 15 members — 13 would be appointed by Johns Hopkins administrators.
Many students and community members are concerned that having more police will not make them feel more safe, due to troubling tactics of Johns Hopkins’ stated model institutions, University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania, both of which have been accused of racially profiling black students and local residents. University of Chicago police shot a student who was having a mental health crisis, and Yale University police shot a woman a mile away from the campus. They also worry that the Johns Hopkins force would further alienate the low-income, predominantly black communities neighboring Johns Hopkins’ campuses. Privatizing a public good also troubles students and faculty and community members. Having separate police forces for organizations that can afford it, and the BPD for the rest of the city, sets up a dynamic that ultimately may teach students, hailing mostly from outside Baltimore, that their needs are inherently more important than those of the local community. Private police forces are historically more difficult to leverage data from, and a Johns Hopkins police department would prioritize the university’s needs, such as protecting private property, above the goal of overall public safety.
This year marks Johns Hopkins’ second try at creating a private police force. In 2018, the proposal was voted down late in the state legislative session due to a rushed introduction and lack of community input. This fall, Johns Hopkins conducted town halls and community meetings, ostensibly to get feedback on the proposal. While legislators appreciated that Johns Hopkins took a year to prepare a better proposal, many community members said the town halls felt performative, rather than demonstrations of true willingness to change plans in response to feedback. In their published report on the community meetings, Johns Hopkins officials noted that students, employees and community members all prioritized safety as a goal, but did not acknowledge stark differences in proposals of how to arrive at that goal. Students asked for alternatives such as improved lighting, strengthened community-building programs and reversal of cuts to the Lyft program that provides safe rides home for students. In his testimony in Annapolis, university President Ronald Daniels said that regarding the cost of forming a police force, “When it comes to safety, money is no object,” despite community members noting that public health-based safety initiatives are typically underfunded.
The Community Safety and Strengthening Act was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly by State Senator Antonio Hayes at the request of Johns Hopkins. Dozens of students from the undergraduate and graduate schools, including the medical school, gave oral and written testimony against the bill, with community members testifying both for and against. The Johns Hopkins administration, including Daniels, testified that this is a necessary step for the institution in order to keep students safe and continue to attract top applicants. Some neighborhood associations, such as Tuscany-Canterbury and Guilford, have been frustrated by the Baltimore police and felt a Johns Hopkins force would be more effective. Others, including the Abell, Greater Remington and Harwood neighborhood associations, community groups such as Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and Showing Up for Racial Justice, and national organizations such as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposed the bill due to concerns about racial profiling, lack of accountability and the checkered history of Johns Hopkins’ relationship with the community. The complicated relationship includes the Henrietta Lacks story, Kennedy Krieger’s lead paint experiments on black children, grave robbing and gentrification by forced displacement.
Many students, including the president of the Black Student Union, testified that university administrators have not adequately listened to their concerns about racial profiling of students, Johns Hopkins’ botched handling of sexual assault cases potential negative impacts of a Johns Hopkins police force on community members. An organization called Students Against Private Police, which was formed when the bill was introduced last year, led much of the opposition. Some students supported the initiative because they feel current security efforts are ineffective, but noted there should have been more outreach in developing the planned force. A survey of undergraduate students by the Student Government Association demonstrated that 75 percent of the undergraduate campus opposed the police force. A similar survey of the Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 53 percent opposed the private force, with an additional 27 percent mixed or unsure. The Graduate Student Association voted in opposition, and over 100 faculty members signed a letter opposing the force. The NAACP provided a statement in opposition and the ACLU of Maryland testified against the bill in Annapolis.
The bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly on April 2, yet its opponents are still speaking up. On April 3, a student sit-in at Garland Hall began; the protest, now 23 days strong, opposes both the private police force and the university’s contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Protests against the force by campus and community members have occurred throughout the process, most recently on April 4 and April 18. A community group called Women Against Private Police has launched a petition to create a state ballot referendum on whether to allow the police force to be formed. Johns Hopkins administrators will likely meet with Baltimore City officials soon to negotiate the terms of a memorandum of understanding. Although many details are yet to be ironed out, one thing is clear: Students and community members have made their voices heard, if not listened to.