Student leaders reflect on security meetings with administrators

By DIVA PAREKH and SIRI TUMMALA | January 31, 2019

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SHEFALI VIJAY/PHOTOGRAPHY EDITOR

Students are divided over the proposed police force. 

SHEFALI VIJAY / The News-Letter

This article is part of our special issue on policing.

At the end of the fall semester, student leaders from various organizations had the opportunity to speak directly with administrators in closed meetings, give feedback and ask questions about the proposed police force. 

The News-Letter spoke with leaders of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Advocates for Disability Awareness, the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, the
Interfraternity Council and the Sexual Assault Resource Unit.

Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC)

Senior SAAC President Jeremy Ratcliff was concerned that a Hopkins private police force would adversely impact the communities in the neighborhoods surrounding University campuses. He did not feel as though the meeting helped sufficiently address these concerns.

“It seemed like a lot of their justifications for a private police force are that it’s something that is happening in other schools around the country. The Baltimore context requires a more thorough investigation,“ he said. “They are rushing the proposal through without really evaluating the community environment.”

During his meeting on Dec. 4, Ratcliff felt that administrators were not truly seeking student feedback on whether or not a private police force should be instituted. According to him, they were already convinced of the need for one. 

“While the University may be holding these discussions, it doesn’t seem like [these discussions] are actually changing their plans,“ he said. “I still don’t think that they are considering not moving forward with the proposal. I don’t think there was a moment in the meeting where they at all said that they might back down from this.”

Advocates for Disability Awareness (ADA)

Sabrina Epstein, vice president of ADA, agreed that administrators had already decided that a private police force was necessary. Going into the meeting, she wanted to make sure that the University would keep the needs of students with disabilities in mind when it made fundamental structural changes to security. 

During her meetings with administrators, Epstein concluded that the current security office greatly emphasized conducting trainings for its officers.

“They are very open to adding trainings, but it is not clear that trainings work and lead to changes in behavior from security or from police officers,“ she said.

She added that the off-duty Baltimore Police Department (BPD) officers stationed on campus did not have to go through University-mandated training. The numbers of these armed off-duty BPD officers increased last spring, as reported by The News-Letter

“It made me feel very unsafe to know that the people who are armed on the campus are the ones who go through the least training,“ Epstein said. “It is very frustrating, and [administrators] didn’t really have an answer or a solution to that.”

Epstein recommended that current and future security personnel be trained in basic American Sign Language (ASL), in methods of de-escalating high-tension situations and in communicating more effectively with people with disabilities.

She appreciated that Vice President for Security Melissa Hyatt agreed and said that she would try to offer current security employees incentives to learn it.

At the meeting, Epstein also advocated for the need for a mental health crisis response team that did not consist of police or armed security officers.

“Having armed police intervene in mental health crises escalates the situation,“ she said. “I really want them to change that policy — to have someone else they can call, whether it’s a clinician, social worker or a trained student to de-escalate the situation... There’s no need to introduce a gun to that situation.”

She appreciated that though initially hesitant, Hyatt grew increasingly receptive to this idea.

Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance (DSAGA)

Senior Chris Reinhardt, who represented DSAGA, was frustrated by the nature of the meeting he had with administrators on Nov. 8. He voiced concerns that members of the LGBTQ community tend to be disproportionately impacted by police brutality but was not satisfied by administrators’ responses.

“Basically every time we asked a question or raised a concern... we heard, ‘We don’t have specifics for you,’” he said. “When we ask specific questions, we don’t get any form of concrete details about how they plan on conducting things.”

He asserted that DSAGA remains strongly against a private police force at Hopkins. Leaving the meeting, he explained that he did not feel confident in the measures of accountability that the University had created for possible infractions committed by members of its private police force.

Interfraternity Council (IFC)

Former IFC President Zack Buono was impressed by the level of professionalism that administrators showed at his meeting on Dec. 4. He appreciated the efforts they had taken to communicate with students and elicit feedback from them.

When Buono first heard about the University’s proposed private police force, he was concerned that security would be tightened and fraternity chapter houses would be under more invasive scrutiny.

He felt that the impact of a new private police force would not be as significant as other students felt it would be.

“This is more of a restructuring,“ he said. “If anything, it would just allow us to be able to hire our own personnel that work full-time for us instead of hiring off-duty, overworked police officers from the City.”

Buono emphasized that by adopting a system already in use by many other universities, Hopkins would align itself better with its peer institutions. He explained that a private police force would not change the way in which individual issues concerning Hopkins students were addressed and instead would merely standardize security operations and allow for more direct oversight.

Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU)

SARU Co-President Mayuri Viswanathan was specifically interested in ensuring that police officers knew how to be empathetic first-responders in cases of sexual violence. She gave the example of a sexual assault survivor asking to be driven to Mercy Hospital, the closest treatment center that offered the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE). She cited instances in which an officer might ask the survivor their reason for going specifically to Mercy, putting them in a position where they may feel compelled or pressured to disclose their trauma.

“We have had incidences where officers have asked... Students shouldn’t be put in that position,” she said. “We know that certain trainings exist, but it seems like the security officers are not universally trained on these issues.”

According to Viswanathan even though administrators emphasize the importance of training current officers and potential new private police officers, the trainings offered now may not be particularly effective. She mentioned an experience during which an officer came up to her while she was wearing a T-shirt that said “Don’t rape.”

“He came up to me and said, ‘Does that say what I think it says?’“ she said. “I explained the point of the shirt. He said, ‘I don’t rape, rape is for ugly people.’”

She explained that though she herself was in an emotionally stable position at that moment, other survivors may not have been if they were in her place, adding that there was a pressing need for University officials to prevent incidents like this from occurring again through a more robust training process. She also raised concerns about how the University would address allegations of sexual violence against security officers.

“They don’t actually have a plan on paper to deal with [these] allegations, which is a little concerning,“ Viswanathan said.

Though administrators expressed interest in having more meetings in the future with students who expressed concerns, Viswanathan was unsure if they would follow through.

“It is one thing to talk and another thing to actually do something about it,” she said. “So hopefully we will hear that some of these things have been addressed, and until that happens I can’t really say whether we were actually heard.”

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