In spring of last year, University administration submitted a bill to the Maryland legislature which would allow them to create a private police force. However, following protests and a petition signed by over 2,300 people, the bill failed to pass.
On Monday, University President Ronald J. Daniels and Dean of Medicine Paul B. Rothman announced in an email to the student body that the University has created new ways for students to contribute to the dialogue on private police. Many students had criticized the University for submitting the bill without first consulting the student body and the communities surrounding the University’s campuses, which would fall within the patrol perimeter for the proposed force.
The University’s new initiatives include open forums, small group meetings and new information about the possibility of a private police force. The email stated that crime continues to be an issue around the Hopkins campuses, which is why the administration is continuing to pursue a way to improve security.
Sophomore Noah Johnson does not support the proposed private police force in light of the number of unarmed black people who have been killed by police officers in the U.S.
“As a person of color, I feel like it puts my life in more danger than just having Hop Cops, especially since the Baltimore Police Department has a history of corruption,” Johnson wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “I have to put my phone away when I walk by the police cars that are always on the Beach because I’m so afraid they’re gonna think it’s a gun.”
Other protesters have also expressed concerns about bias and racial profiling, which some students have already experienced first-hand from current Hopkins security as well as concerns about the efficacy of the proposed police force, compared to alternatives such as investing money in the root causes of violence.
The email acknowledged many of these concerns including the University’s potentially close affiliation with the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), which has faced a number of scandals, including the questioning of nearly every member of the Gun Trace Task Force in 2017. Several members of the Task Force were convicted of felony crimes.
Vice President of Security Melissa Hyatt acknowledged that racial profiling is an issue that police officers grapple with, not just in Baltimore, but nationwide. For this reason, she stressed the importance of having a police force that was accountable not only to the University but to the wider Baltimore community.
“Even though it would be the Johns Hopkins University Police Department, it would still be a police department in Baltimore. The community voice is going to be just as important and welcomed as internal stakeholders,” Hyatt said. “Many Hopkins students and employees are also city residents, so there’s a lot of crossover. We have to make sure that everything we do is seamless so that if we do have a police department, it would be as much a part of the community as a municipal police department would be.”
Jason Souvaliotis, a member of Students Against Private Police (SAPP), is skeptical that the University would consider the input provided by members of the community. He cited the University decision last winter to solely divest from thermal coal despite the recommendations from an advisory committee to divest from all fossil fuels.
“They should talk to community members to see what they actually want, not try and get community approval for a private police force,” Souvaliotis said. “[The administration is] not listening to the people who will be most affected by this — students who are here everyday, community members in and around campus who will be threatened by a private police force.”
For Souvaliotis, a private police force is not the way to improve student security.
“There should be positive investment in the community especially around Homewood and the East Baltimore campus. Police lead to more violence, even if there’s a positive decrease in crime. It’s incredibly stressful to feel like you’re constantly being watched by police. Any encounter with police especially for black and brown individuals could lead to death,” he said.
Daniel Ennis, senior vice president for finance and administration, spoke about why the administration did not hold these discussion forums prior to submitting the bill to the legislature last year.
“The legislative session runs from January to April and the institutional decision-making process put us in a place last year where we had to rush to try to catch that window. This time we have the benefit of creating a lot more room for process and engagement,” Ennis said.
Ennis said that since its first draft, many aspects have changed drastically in the bill in order to address the questions many community members and students asked the University.
In an email to The News-Letter, senior Harrison Folk wrote about his disappointment with how long the implementation of the private police force was taking.
“Although crime has decreased a tad since the University increased its security patrol in Charles Village, it’s obvious that the University wants to take the next steps to ensure our 100 percent protection while we study here. I just had hoped I would have been more protected before I graduate,” Folk wrote.
Provost Sunil Kumar, senior vice president for academic affairs, commented on the lack of consensus in the community about supporting a private police force as well as what that force may look like if implemented.
He noted that one of the major issues with the implementation of a private police force is that the University must consider both those in support and those who oppose the increased security.
“People who have been victims of crime or have loved ones who have been victims are asking us why aren’t we doing more? We have other people saying if you do this we feel like our rights will be trampled on, and we hear that too,” Kumar said. “We need to beef up our security in a way that is entirely consistent with the University’s values. And on the basis... of these conversations that we’re having, we want to get to something more concrete in which we can take the temperature of the community.”
Kumar also spoke about how the research the administration had conducted since last spring had affected the conversation surrounding the proposed force. He explained that although the purpose of the police force would be to reduce crime in the area, it must also be a program that Hopkins can be proud of.
“We aren’t doing research to support a viewpoint; we are trying to gather information that’s broad and diverse so we’re bringing in experts as well,” Kumar said.
Sophomore Nicole Kiker, a member of SAPP, expressed hope that the University would seriously take into account to the input they received at the forums.
“I think that there will be more petitions and there will be more rallies,” Kiker said. “I’m glad they’re doing these more intimate forum type discussions. I hope they’re actually substantive and that they listen to what students have to say.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the University had not divested from thermal coal. The University made the decision to divest from thermal coal last winter.