Over 100 professors oppose private police

By MEAGAN PEOPLES | February 21, 2019

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Over 100 University faculty members have signed an open letter in opposition to Senate Bill (SB) 793 and House Bill (HB) 1094, which would allow Hopkins to create its own private police force. As of Feb. 20, 104 faculty had signed the letter.

The open letter lists several concerns regarding the creation of a privately-owned University police force, including that this police force would undermine the relationship between Hopkins and the Baltimore community. 

“We believe that armed personnel introduce dangerous firearms and can decrease public safety, endanger our own students, and increase risk. We are concerned that once in place, police administrations will inevitably amplify the climate of fear and justify their roles by citing stops, arrests, and detainments,” the letter reads. “We wish to see the university taking on the role of constructive partner in a complex public issue of public health and educational equity and community well-being.” 

Susan Ridge, vice president for communications, emphasized in an email to The News-Letter that the University has heard a variety of opinions, both positive and negative, on the private police force in public and one-on-one meetings. 

“As an institution that employs more than 4,500 full-time faculty and teaches nearly 15,000 full time undergraduate and graduate students, we expect and welcome a variety of opinions on important issues,” Ridge wrote. “We considered several options and have listened to and incorporated the input of many key stakeholders, including faculty and students. There is broad agreement that something must be done to reduce violent crime in Baltimore, and many in our community support a small, publicly-accountable university police department.”

Last spring, members of the Maryland General Assembly refused to support a bill that would allow Hopkins to create a private police force. Lawmakers required that University officials conduct an interim study and engage in substantial community outreach if they wanted to reintroduce a similar bill in the future.

Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of History and English Lawrence Jackson helped organize the faculty response. He emphasized that the purpose of the letter is to show faculty support of their students, as well as making their opposition public to legislators so that it will be included in their debate over SB 793 and HB 1094. Legislators will hear testimony regarding the two bills on Friday, Feb. 22, in the Md. General Assembly. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Jackson also addressed his personal opposition to the private police force. 

“While the University administration argues that private police are necessary to safeguard Hopkins students and employees, I believe that their primary role inevitably will be to safeguard private property, keep open commercial corridors, and intimidate political opposition,” he wrote. “In its broadest contours, my opposition to the creation of a campus police force stems from the recognition that it symbolizes the final tool (after epistemic and economic force, condign force) necessary to endow a fully colonial model of resource extraction and exploitation.”

The open letter referenced actions taken by Students Against Private Police (SAPP), which has held multiple rallies and information sessions about the issue. SAPP member Jason Souvaliotis wrote in an email to The News-Letter that he appreciates faculty members addressing policing on campus. 

“The faculty took the time to listen to our arguments and concerns and cite them in the letter, while the administration clearly hasn’t listened to us, the faculty, the staff, or other community members that would be affected by this bill,“ he wrote. “Many of these faculty are experts in relevant fields (sociology, public health, mental health, political science), and they have the same concerns about this that we do. If they don’t know what they’re talking about, then I don’t really know who does.”

Junior Sabrina Conte was surprised when she saw the open letter because some of her former professors had signed it. Conte also noted that by signing the letter and opposing the University’s stance on the private police bill, faculty members were potentially risking their jobs. 

“Just the fact that a lot of these professors were willing to speak out against the police because their jobs could be in jeopardy was surprising to me,” she said. “The administration is trying to push a narrative that a lot of Hopkins affiliates are in support of the police force, but in my personal opinion that’s not true at all.”

Junior and English major Matthias Gompers thought it was inspiring to see so many faculty speak out. In particular, they noted that most of the English department had signed the letter and that a majority of signatories were from social science or humanities departments. Gompers also noted that faculty speaking out against the issue might have more impact than students.

“It’s definitely important for them to do so because if it’s just students that are speaking out, even if the students are completely right and justified - and we are - the administration can still look at us and be like, ‘you’re a bunch of students, what the hell do you know? You’re just kids, let the adults talk,’” they said. “So to have all these faculty members, many of whom don’t even have tenure yet, to stand there and speak out against the administration, that’s a serious act.”

Nathan Connolly, Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history, also signed the letter. He believes that there are a variety of issues that are currently unaddressed by the administration, including accountability to staff and students who experience sexual violence, racism or physical assault. He emphasized that creating a private police force would not address these issues, and that the University should focus on creating a more transparent environment. 

“Rather than have a very clear commitment to creating a more transparent environment, we are now opting to militarize our environment,“ he said. “We’re adding policing to an already tense situation.”

SB 793 and HB 1094 also include provisions for Baltimore City youth programs. Connolly addressed these provisions by comparing them to the grants put aside for urban America under the Johnson presidential administration. Connolly stated that this money was a fraction of the amount spent on militarizing police forces around America. 

“This idea that you can have a modest philanthropic expenditure that will then offset this larger militarization effort is just disingenuous,” he said. “The differences in scale in terms of what is required in creating a marshal environment around policing and public safety, and then to make a gesture to an after school program or a church program, a community garden: these are the kinds of things that are not incidental.”

Susan Ridge, vice president for communications, stated that the overall response to SB 793 has been positive, and that the bill addressed the concerns raised by community members during its community outreach.

“We believe strongly that university police departments can and do make a meaningful contribution to public safety in Baltimore, and we want to take this step to uphold our responsibility to help keep our campuses, our neighborhoods and our city safe,” Ridge wrote.

Gompers, when asked about what they thought the impact of the open letter will be, stated that they don’t think it will make a difference in the stance of the administration. 

“The Hopkins administration has proven at this point that they, quite frankly, don’t give a fuck what we think. And they’re going to steamroll ahead with this as much as they can and as much as they want, so I don’t know that the letter’s going to really end up making much of a difference, unfortunately,“ they said.

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