Presence of armed BPD officers worries students

By EMILY MCDONALD | October 4, 2018

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COURTESY OF EMMA LEE

Following last spring’s controversy about a potential bill that would allow Hopkins to create its own private police force, students have noticed an increase in armed officers on and around the Homewood Campus. The bill failed to pass in the Maryland State Legislature in March after resistance from students, staff and community members.

However, students reported noticing the spike in armed officers starting this summer. Quinn Lester, a graduate student and member of the organization Students Against Private Police (SAPP), recounted the first time he saw the armed officers.

“I first noticed it around June and thought maybe it was because there were many kids visiting campus from Baltimore County, but it seems now to be a permanent presence with no announcement or explanation,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

According to Vice Provost for Security Melissa Hyatt, the University did hire additional off-duty Baltimore Police Department (BPD) officers in the spring of 2018.

“A few additional part-time off-duty BPD officers were hired to support security patrols on and off campus,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “These officers patrol the Homewood Campus and its immediate surrounding areas on foot. Armed, off-duty BPD officers make up a small percentage of our overall security team.” 

Only law enforcement officers and those authorized by Hyatt are allowed to carry guns on University campuses.

Sophomore Smitha Mahesh, who is also a member of SAPP, first noticed an increase in armed officers during the first few weeks of the semester. She said that other students had also seen the armed officers, and they had discussed the increased police presence in group chats and on social media. 

She recalled being surprised to see these officers in the area around the Homewood Campus. 

“I was walking from my Homewood apartment to CVS and I noticed two police officers walking with their batons, kind of casually swinging it around,” she said. “I was concerned about the presence of a type of weapon being displayed while walking through St. Paul Street.” 

Lester believes having armed officers on campus poses a threat to students rather than increasing safety.

“Having armed officers on campus is inherently a threat to the safety of students, and particularly students of color and students undergoing mental health crises,“ he wrote. “As we have seen in many instances at universities across the country, police do not leave behind issues of racial profiling, use of force, and failed responses to mental health when they cross onto the campus.”

Mahesh, although she expressed support for continuing to have unarmed security officers and patrols in areas both on and off campus, was concerned that having armed officers on campus could lead to violence, especially against students of color. 

“A police force having weapons on campus, including pepper spray, could increase tensions… and it will likely increase the racial profiling that occurs of black and brown students and people of color,” she said. 

Senior Chisom Okereke, the president of the Black Student Union (BSU) and a member of SAPP, said that students in both organizations have noticed the officers around the Homewood campus. She explained that the presence of armed officers on campus has made some BSU members uncomfortable. Okereke acknowledged the need for a security presence on campus, while stressing a need for accountability for that security presence. 

“A problem arises when we have police officers on campus and there’s a lack of accountability for when things do go wrong,” she said. “A sense of security and safety is really important for a student body, especially when it’s located smack-dab in the middle of the city, but I think it’s also important that the students that do go here, especially the students of color, also feel safe, and I think hasn’t really been something that we’ve seen.”

Hyatt addressed student concerns about potential racial profiling by security in an email to The News-Letter

“We understand and are mindful that the presence of armed officers can be uncomfortable for some. Our main priority is the safety and wellbeing of our campus communities,” she wrote. “It is important that, as one part of its multi-layered public safety operation, Johns Hopkins security has some armed response capability to respond to and mitigate incidents on and around campus.”

She also stressed that Hopkins security receives training in a variety of areas. 

“We train our security officers to understand and support the importance of cultural, racial, religious, disability and LGBTQ diversity on our campus, and training is in accordance with our institution’s core values of free expression, diversity, equity, inclusion, transparency and accountability,” she wrote. “We unequivocally believe that safety and security go hand-in-hand with respect for civil rights and civil liberties and will continue to hold our security team accountable to that standard.”

Okereke also believes that having more BPD officers on campus, especially those who are armed and have the power to arrest students, is not an adequate solution to security issues.

“The already-present law enforcement entities on campus are very flawed, and so I don’t see how adding more power to that is supposed to cause them to shape up,” she said. “Students of color are disproportionately negatively affected by law enforcement officers, so can we at least see change in that, can we see improvement in that before we start giving these people more power?”

Okereke thinks that the University has not always been transparent when it comes to security issues. She said that there was no formal notice of the increase in armed security guards.

“There shouldn’t be so many questions about where the increased police force is coming from,” she said. “I don’t think that anyone knew that there was going to be an increased police presence on campus until we saw it, and I think that’s another way that the administration hasn’t been transparent.”

Mahesh agreed that she would have liked a notice of the increase in security.

“The lack of explicit notice of it shows that there is a discrepancy in the communication between the administration and the larger Hopkins community, and even further discrepancy of communication and trust with the administration and the Baltimore community,” she said.

Hyatt noted that they are considering student input. The University recently created the Student Advisory Committee on Security (SACS), which will consist of a 15-person board and will take into account student opinions on security and safety decisions.

“The Campus Safety and Security team believes that we have a responsibility to engage the full Johns Hopkins community – including students, faculty, staff and neighbors – to understand their perspectives as we consider enhancements to our security operation. We are committed to listening to and addressing the concerns that have been expressed, and we are eager to engage with a diverse set of students on these important issue,” she wrote.

Noh Mebrahtu, Executive Class President of the Student Government Association (SGA), addressed the plans to create SACS. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s something that should be lauded, because it’s the bare minimum expected, that the University has some sort of student input in this matter,” he said. 

Okereke said that she would have liked to see BSU involved in the conversation and decision-making process with administration. 

“If you promise to involve a certain community in the discussion and it’s us having to fight for seat at the table, it’s not really fair,” she said. 

Lester also noted that according to The Baltimore Sun, the rates of many crimes, such as homicides, carjackings and burglaries, have decreased significantly in Baltimore in 2018. Given this, he thinks that Hopkins should seek alternatives to policing.

“Given the life-or-death nature of security, and especially issues in Baltimore since the Uprising...it is fundamental that the administration be more transparent on its intentions with security and consult widely with the Baltimore community and commit to alternatives, instead of seeking to add more armed officers whenever there is a spike in petty theft,” he wrote.

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