Students seek answers on proposed police force

By JACOB TOOK | March 15, 2018

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Students and administrators gathered to discuss the proposed police force.

Since the University announced its intent to create its own private police force, many students have questioned what this force would look like and how the school will take into account their concerns. 

The Student Government Association (SGA) hosted a forum on Tuesday to address the University’s plan to form this police force, which would patrol on and around the University’s Baltimore campuses. Provost Sunil Kumar, alongside other administrators, responded to questions and comments from students.

In its initial announcement on March 5, the University declared its support for Maryland legislation which, if passed, would authorize Hopkins to work with the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) to create an independent police force.

Some support the proposal as an effort to increase public safety for Hopkins and its adjacent neighborhoods. 

Others oppose the creation of a private force, citing concerns such as racial profiling by armed police, a lack of transparency from the University and whether this force would effectively ensure public safety.

Joining Kumar at the forum were Vice Provost of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger, Executive Director of Campus Safety and Security Christina Presberry, Director of Campus Safety at the Peabody Institute Rodney Giacomelli and Special Advisor to the Vice President for Local Government, Community and Corporate Affairs Jeanne Hitchcock.

Kumar said that the University made this decision after a recent increase in crime in the City. According to Kumar, there have been 18 armed robberies near Hopkins campuses since September, 12 of which involved students, faculty or staff.

He added that the University consulted with peer institutions to determine how best to proceed with the formation of its own department.

“We will put together a police force that will lift up the values of the University,” he said. “There is enough best pratice to give us confidence that we can stand up a force that will serve our community.”

SGA Executive President Noh Mebrahtu said that he personally opposes the formation of a private police force on campus because he worries that he may be racially profiled.

“I’ve never had a good interaction with police, and I get very scared around them. To know that there are police on campus with guns, I won’t feel safe,” he said. “I feel that I will always feel threatened and endangered every time I go to class.”

Junior Chris Reinhardt, a board member of the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, said that he was also concerned about violence against LGBTQ students.

He added that, according to a study in 2015 by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, 48 percent of anti-LGBTQ hate survivors who report to the police experience police misconduct.

“These same people that are supposed to serve and protect us are the same people who are committing injustices against people who are already experiencing violence and injustice every single day,” he said.

In an email to The News-Letter, Vice President for Communications Susan Ridge wrote that the Hopkins department would police fairly and impartially.

“Racial and ethnic profiling in security and law enforcement at Johns Hopkins or elsewhere is wholly unacceptable,” she wrote. “We currently train our [campus safety] officers to understand and support the importance of cultural, racial, religious, and LGBTQ diversity.”

She added that the University will look to its peer institutions to determine a process for addressing complaints against officers and will implement training that exceeds state standards.

“Training, too, would follow best practice, and likely include — above and beyond the training that is mandated by the state certification process — additional requirements areas such as conflict management and problem-solving, fair and impartial policing, de-escalation and mental health issues,” Ridge wrote.

Twenty-seven students formally spoke at the forum, with all but one voicing opposition to the proposal.

In addition to racial profiling, some students questioned why the University does not invest more in improving mental health or effectively addressing cases of campus sexual assault.

Others sought more information about how the University will build the force and what it will look like in practice.

Hitchcock explained that the force will have jurisdiction over the areas currently patrolled by campus safety officers and added that if the legislation passes, the University would likely work with the City to establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with BPD.

“This is an enabling legislation that will take a bit of time because there has to be an MOU between either the Mayor or the Police Commissioner and this institution,” she said. 

In her statement, Ridge explained that the MOU would in part determine the authority of the department.

“Arrest authority for a future Johns Hopkins police department would be subject to the MOU with the City, but we would anticipate having arrest authority within a designated area on and adjacent to our campuses,” she wrote.

She added that the proposed department would coordinate with the BPD as the current security services do, but would be subject to the University’s own standards.

“Police officers would be employees of Johns Hopkins and subject to all of our policies and procedures and adhere to our core values,” she wrote. “These values include supporting freedom of expression, connecting with and welcoming our neighbors, promoting equity and inclusion, and being transparent and accountable.”

Hitchcock added that the University had already been in contact with several community organizations. However some students, like Students for Environmental Action President Kyra Meko, said that the community groups she had spoken with were not aware of the proposal until the University’s announcement.

Others, like Freshman Class President Sam Schatmeyer, worried that the proposal would fail to include community voices going forward. 

“The reality is that this is a private institution,” Schatmeyer said. “That closes the door for any kind of accountability from us, first off, but [also] from people outside of the Homewood community that this type of police force would absolutely affect.”

Several students asked how the University would incorporate the input of students and community members. Freshman Class Senator Lauren Paulet asked whether a vote against the proposal would be enough to overturn it.

Kumar said that because the bill had already been introduced in Annapolis, it was unlikely that a vote by students against the initiative would have an effect.

He added that the University decided to back this bill during the current legislative session, which began on Jan. 10 and runs until April 9, because they did not want to wait until next year’s session.

Freshman Jason Souvaliotis said that the timing of the decision gives students little time to respond.

According to Kumar, the University worked to make its decision before a deadline to introduce new bills.

“Even though the legislative process goes until April 10, there is a last date on which a new bill can be introduced,” he said.

According to the Maryland General Assembly’s website, bills can be introduced at any time during the legislative session. However, any bill introduced after March 6, 2018 would require suspension of the rules by a two-thirds vote. 

Recently, a measure was introduced in the Baltimore City Council which, if passed, would require the University to work with the City Council in establishing an MOU. Hitchcock said that the City Council did not oppose the proposal.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Pugh reaffirmed her support for a Hopkins police force.

“It allows us to take our folks and focus them on the streets and in the neighborhoods,” she said.

Sophomore Taylor Richter spoke out in support of the proposed police force. He said that he was robbed at gunpoint outside of the University’s patrol route and added that he called Hopkins security after 911.

“They were going to be concerned about me and they were going to take care of me much more than the Baltimore police,” he said. “The opportunity for us to build our own police force is far more valuable than continuing our current relationship that relies so heavily on [BPD].”

According to Kumar, some of the officers will be armed, though he said that they would be careful as to when and where officers were allowed to be armed. 

He also said that the University will fund the new force with the money it currently invests in security and will not seek to take investments away from other areas, like improving mental health services.

Senior Class President Kwame Alston, who is also the president of the Black Student Union, said that the financial backing that the University has already put toward this proposal shows him that they intend to go through with it.

He said that there was no point in holding forums because he didn’t expect the University to take student feedback into account.

“My opinion won’t actually be taken into account when it’s in direct opposition to what the University wants to do,” Alston said. “All we know is that Hopkins is going to do what it wants to do when it wants to do it.”

He added that the University is concerned about its image and hopes to appease parents and attract prospective students.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Peter Verheyen, a Hopkins alum and the father of a current sophomore, said that while the University should incorporate input from parents, the parents should trust students to speak for themselves.

“It troubles me when parents expect the University to be armed to the teeth to take care of their kids,” Verheyen said. “It’s ultimately up to the students to let the University know if there are issues. The University needs to listen to them.”

He said that the University should have allowed a greater period for incorporating feedback.

“It was hurried through a little bit,” he said. “There needs to be a fair hearing.”

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