Students divided over proposed Hopkins police force

By JACOB TOOK | March 8, 2018



Some students are wary of the possible consequences of the police force.

University President Ronald J. Daniels and Johns Hopkins Medicine CEO Paul B. Rothman announced that Hopkins may create a private police department with the aim to increase public safety on and around its Baltimore campuses. They made the announcement in an email to students, faculty and staff on Monday.

On the same day, a bill was introduced into the Maryland General Assembly which would authorize private universities in Baltimore City “to establish a campus police force.” Currently, private institutions do not have this authority, although several public schools in Baltimore, including Morgan State University and Coppin State University, maintain their own police departments.

Students are divided over whether a campus police force would effectively increase safety at Hopkins and in its neighboring communities.

In an email to The News-Letter, Vice President for Communications Susan Ridge explained why Hopkins supports this bill. 

“The importance of establishing a University police department is based on numerous benefits to the Johns Hopkins community,” she wrote. “Most of our peer institutions and the vast majority of public universities already have university police departments with armed law enforcement officers.”

According to Ridge, the benefits of a Hopkins police force include the ability to share and receive confidential information with the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), collaborate with BPD on investigations at Hopkins, act as a visible deterrent to street crime and respond more effectively to active shooter threats. 

Kwame Alston, the president of the Black Student Union (BSU), explained why the BSU does not support the creation of a private police force. 

“We’ve seen a history of racial discrimination with Hop Cops — the way they categorize us, statements that have been made,” Alston said. “We don’t feel as though that will make us as black students, the minorities, safer on this campus.”

Sophomore Taylor Richter said that he rarely hears of incidents of racial profiling at other universities and is wary of taking too radical of a stance.

“I do understand that there’s certain stigmas with police, and oftentimes certain socioeconomic groups feel disenfranchised by the police and that other people don’t,” he said. “The fact is most universities in the country have their own university police force, and it’s not something you hear about negatively.”

In her statement, Ridge wrote that the University would seek feedback from the Hopkins community and its neighbors to guide the planning process.

“We expect that all members of our Johns Hopkins and neighborhood communities would be treated fairly and respectfully at all times. Our goal is to build a model university police department that reflects contemporary best practices,” she wrote. “This includes upholding the core values of our institution, including strong commitments to freedom of expression, community engagement, equity, inclusion, transparency and accountability.”

Emeline Armitage and Mira Wattal, the co-presidents of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), shared several of the group’s concerns with the proposal, which include racial profiling, an uptick in police violence against students, and increasing the division between the University and the Baltimore community.

SDS released a petition to the formation of a private police force on Tuesday morning detailing many of their concerns, which at press time had almost 1,600 signatures. Almost 1,000 of those signatures were Hopkins students. Over 200 alumni and 200 community members signed the petition, and the remaining signatures comprised of faculty, staff, parents and students at other universities.

Wattal said the murder of Tyrone West in 2013 was an example of violence from a university police officer. West was a black Baltimore resident who was killed after officers saw a bulge of suspected drugs in his sock and attacked him as he attempted to escape.

She said that she is worried these incidents would occur at Hopkins. Wattal said that recently, two students of color were arrested and detained at Loyola University Chicago.

“These police officers arrested them because they didn’t have their ID, but that’s not a reason to arrest a student,” Wattal said. “It just shows the concern that comes with over-policing at college campuses.”

Loyola University Chicago is among many institutions throughout the country with a private police force. Most public universities currently have their own force, as do private institutions like the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago.

Ridge also wrote that, should the bill pass and authorize Hopkins to proceed, they will work to hire and train new officers and seek input from community members.

She added that the University will establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the BPD.

MOUs are typically legal agreements that outline the relationship between two entities and are often used between university police forces and city police departments.

Armitage added that she was surprised that Hopkins would work closely with the BPD.

“[They are] probably the most corrupt police department in the country,” she said. 

She added that they have recently come under scrutiny for corruption and substandard policing practices.

In a statement to The News-Letter, BPD Commissioner Darryl De Sousa wrote that the BPD fully supports the creation of a private Hopkins police force after working with other schools in the City. 

“Over the years we’ve been working closely with Johns Hopkins as they consider a wide range of public safety initiatives across their campuses and hospital facilities,” he wrote. “We partner with other university police departments already established in Baltimore.”

He added that Melissa Hyatt, a former BPD colonel who the University recently named Vice President for Security, would successfully guide the initiative.

“They couldn’t have picked a more suitable law enforcement professional as Melissa Hyatt,” he wrote. “This will be a great public safety partnership for many years to come and it’s good not only for Johns Hopkins but the city overall.”

Armitage also said that a private police force would be a logical continuation of the relationship between the University and Baltimore, which she called exploitative and racist. She said that it would also increase gentrification around Hopkins campuses.

“This fits very well into Baltimore and Maryland as a whole trying to whitewash the city, make it more palatable for investors — for Under Armour, for Amazon,” Armitage said.

She added that robberies committed by non-affiliates make up only part of crime on campus.

“The vast majority of violence is student-on-student, mostly sexual assault and rape,” she said. “The problem is that those sexual assaults and rapes aren’t reported nearly as much as robbings and muggings, so we have a completely skewed view of what crime looks like on campus.”

Some other students feel as though the creation of a private police force would increase safety on and around Hopkins campuses. Richter said that he used to get an alert about an armed robbery almost every day.

He agreed with Armitage that the alleged corruption in the BPD was concerning, referring to recent news about the Gun Trace Task Force, which implicated several police officers for stealing guns and drugs from citizens to resell on the street among other crimes.

However, he sees police corruption as a reason to support the creation of a private force. He said that independence from the BPD will give the University’s security services greater stability.

“Right now, BPD is under intense scrutiny, and there’s a possibility that the entire department will come crumbling down in some dramatic court case,” he said. “I’m not sure that Hopkins, with all of their acreage in Baltimore, is comfortable going through a police lapse.”

According to Richter, Hopkins could also ease some of the financial burden on the BPD through the creation of a private police force. He said that it was interesting to consider the amount of money the BPD spends on patrolling the neighborhoods around Hopkins campuses.

“That money could be better used by Baltimore for public health and social work,” he said. “Hopkins has the money to spend that Baltimore maybe doesn’t, and it’s not really fair for us to mooch off of Baltimore.”

He added that the University already contracts armed off-duty BPD officers to patrol on and around Hopkins campuses. A private force would simply replace those officers, he said, rather than increase police presence.

He said that while some students may feel disenfranchised by a private police force, he does not think the creation of a private force would pose a huge change.

“A lot of people are acting as if this area has never been under police jurisdiction and now it will be,” he said. “Would you rather be under Baltimore police or Hopkins police? I would rather be under Hopkins police because I feel like I would have more say in those policies.”

Junior Harrison Folk agreed that a private police force would increase the safety of students and community members.

In an email to The News-Letter, Folk wrote that he was less concerned about the areas on campus and more worried about the neighboring areas.

“I have seen a rise in crime in my third year here as opposed to the first two years. However, since the University has placed on foot Hop Cops in the neighborhoods near campus, this crime has been reduced significantly,” he wrote. “Where more officers are needed is in the neighborhoods where the students live — specifically on St. Paul, Calvert and Guilford streets.”

He added that armed officers would make him feel safer during active shooter situations and wrote that he thinks the University decided to pursue this decision in the wake of recent discourse about mass shootings.

According to Folk, the University should not have informed students before the legislation entered the Maryland House of Representatives.

“Now that the bill is introduced and there is a significant shot at it getting passed, the University wants to be as transparent as possible,” he wrote. “Also, maybe the University hopes that some students could get involved and let their voices be heard so the bill can get passed.”

Sophomore Alyssa Thomas said that the University has not given students enough time to provide thorough input. She said that Hopkins should have sent out a survey on the state of public safety on campuses.

Though Daniels wrote in his email that students would be involved in the creation of a private police department, Thomas said that it was not fair because it already assumed that the creation would be underway.

“I guess I’m a little bit skeptical,” she said. “From the inception of this idea, or it having even any weight, it should have been disseminated to the public.”

She added that the University could use the resources that would fund a private police force to fund other initiatives that would combat high stress and anxiety for students.

“Some of those monetary resources should be allocated towards mental health efforts or somehow moving forward to creating more of a student union — something that will decrease existing levels of anxiety and depression and just general stress,” she said. “Right now what they’re doing is increasing it, especially for people of color or queer folks.”

Thomas, like Armitage, worries that current crime reports disproportionately reflect crimes by black male non-affiliates, rather than crimes like sexual assault that occur on campus. She added that this makes students of color feel unsafe. 

According to Thomas, the creation of a private police force would also deepen distrust between the University and the community, as community members would feel that the creation of a police force implies that non-affiliates are perpetrators of crime. 

“Non-Hopkins affiliates who live around here would feel that they are being put in a box,” she said. 

Senior Preston Wessells agreed with Thomas that the University should have made the announcement earlier on.

“We could have had a brainstorming session with the administration before they clearly lobbied to have this bill created,” he said. “I’m sure there’s still a lot of planning to be done, so I’m sure eventually, if they do it correctly, they will get student input, but it would have been nice to know earlier.”

He did, however, agree with Richter’s argument that a private police force would simply replace existing patrols from the BPD, rather than heighten a police presence.

“BPD already patrols the area with guns, so having a dedicated police force that has a mandate to protect students and the community around here could be beneficial,” he said. “It’s not like it’s unheard of to see someone with a gun around here.”

According to Wessells, the current security officers are ineffective in policing the areas around campus. He said that his friend was mugged last semester and saw a security officer drive past while the mugging was in process.

Wessells said that while the officer might have influenced the situation had they stopped, they often do not have the power to enforce safety measures.

“There are so many armed robberies in the neighborhood that having a patrolling force that isn’t armed — what are they supposed to do if they stumble upon a guy with a gun?” he said. “How are they supposed to stop someone who’s more heavily armed than [themselves]?”

Correction: The original article incorrectly indicated that Ridge wrote that the potential Hopkins police force would work with the BPD to hire and train its officers. 

The original article originally stated that MOUs non-binding legal agreements. MOUs can both be binding and non-binding depending on the language of the agreement.

The News-Letter regrets this error.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.