A panel of University administrators faced opposition from Hopkins affiliates and Baltimore community members during the first open forum about the proposed police force, which took place at the 29th Street Community Center on Tuesday.
While the University has already hosted two discussion sessions featuring panels of experts, the open forums provide a platform for community members to directly address University officials.
Many audience members were concerned that Hopkins was prioritizing the safety of their students over that of Baltimore residents. One audience member, despite having been previously robbed at gun point, was still opposed to the private police proposal.
“I don’t think that means I should have more of a say, though, than someone who hasn’t been a victim of crime. I just want my community to be safe, but I have to say a lot of what I have heard at this meeting is that Hopkins lives matter more,” he said.
The panel consisted of University President Ronald J. Daniels, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Daniel Ennis and Vice President for Security Melissa Hyatt. During introductions, each described their vision for the police force, the research and supporting evidence for their proposal, and how they hoped to involve the community in further decision-making.
Daniels acknowledged that violent crime was indicative of other systematic problems that could not be solved solely through policing. He pointed to the University’s initiatives focused on job creation, urban educational improvement and ex-offender reintegration as ways that the University currently addresses social issues, but stressed the fact that Hopkins must meet safety and security obligations towards its students.
“The crime situation that we face in our city, and in particular around our campuses is serious, unrelenting, pernicious and unsustainable,” Daniels said. “I, as the President of the University, have a clear responsibility to do what I can to ensure the safety of our community. Safety and security are at the foundation of everything we do, and this kind of continuous threat around us can’t help but impair our mission and undermine the communities around us.”
Ennis discussed the placement of the police force in a larger context of security initiatives that also included better lighting, tree trimming, increased transportation and economic development initiatives.
“The police department is an important and vital component of this system, but it is only a portion, a piece, of a very thoughtfully designed and invested system,” he said. “It is about so much more than this police department.”
Hyatt specified that the police force would replace the armed, off-duty Baltimore Police Department (BPD) officers that currently patrol the Hopkins campuses. She emphasized the need for accountability, competitive hiring practices and quality training, citing the reduced size of the private force as an opportunity to tailor training to community needs while also maintaining internal control of day-to-day operations.
“Ensuring that everyone understands our procedures is the process of building foundation, trust and legitimacy,” she said. “No matter how we move forward in this process for public safety, communication and transparency are the guiding principles for my entire team.”
Following introductions, audience members were able to address the three-person panel with questions or comments. Viewers of the live-stream of the event were also able to submit questions over email, and audience members who were not able to have their question addressed during the forum were encouraged to submit questions on a paper form that would be later addressed by the staff of the Local Government and Community Affairs department.
Many of the community members who participated in the Q&A portion, however, saw the structure of the forum as proof that Hopkins did not intend to take community input into account, voicing frustration with the fact that administrators were given over an hour to lay out their arguments and left less than an hour for questions. Some audience members called the structure highly undemocratic, and requests for administrators to shorten their initial remarks were met with applause.
Some students and residents questioned why Hopkins was pushing for a private police force instead of using its influence to reform the BPD and create a police force that serves the entire Baltimore community.
“When we remove public goods out of public ownership, we widen the disparities that exist,” one alum said. “We all know that the police department in Baltimore City is struggling. Hopkins has the political will, power and influence to help.”
Other audience members questioned the administration’s lack of clarity on the role of the new force and its proposed budget.
Barae Hirsch, a member of Students Against Private Police (SAPP) noted that the proposed budget itself had changed over the course of several meetings starting from the first forum last spring.
“We were told at one point that it was going to be 25 million; the next time we heard, the University had talked to community members, it was 50 million. That is a 100 percent increase,“ Hirsch said.“Now I’m hearing that we’re starting at 50 million, but that’s just what we have right now, but it’s still very unclear.”
Vice President Ennis said that the specific budget for the police force would be taken from the three to five million dollars currently spent on employing off-duty BPD officers.
“The number that’s greater than 50 million is our current spending across all the University and health system properties in Baltimore. So that number is not the police department number,” Ennis said.
Sandy Sparks, president of the Charles Village Civic Association and Baltimore resident since 1966, expressed appreciation for the way that Hopkins has sought to rectify the mistake of trying to rush the proposal through the Maryland legislature last spring. She was optimistic about the possible benefits of a specialized police force.
“A small, well-trained, dedicated Hopkins force that’s trained to relate to the Hopkins and surrounding communities would be great,” Sparks said. “That’s not the case with the usual City police person. They’re not going to have that kind of training.”
Hirsch, however, said that she was frustrated with the University’s emphasis on the violence in Baltimore, which she characterized as fear-mongering.
“The creation of a Hopkins police force really emphasizes the idea that we in the Hopkins community need to be protected from the outside of Baltimore,” she said. “This really just reinforces the animosity between Hopkins and the Baltimore community.”
President of the Black Student Union Chisom Okereke pointed out that students themselves may not have an idea of how a private police force would impact themselves and other peers.
“There will always be a disconnect that comes with not seeing these things face to face,” she said. “It would be great to see more students [at the forum] that are seeing just how much this will affect community members’ lives.”
Okereke also urged the administration to change their tone moving forward with their discussions, as well as to make an effort to meet specific questions with specific answers.
“We’re having to ask the same questions in multiple ways because the responses we get are so vague,” she said. “It feels like we aren’t getting anything.”