The Judicial Proceedings Committee of the Maryland General Assembly held a hearing for Senate Bill 276, sponsored by Senator Jill P. Carter on Jan. 21. The bill, if passed, would repeal laws that approved the establishment and maintenance of a private police department at Hopkins. The bill was introduced at the beginning of the Maryland General Assembly on Jan. 13.
In response, Hopkins students launched a month-long sit-in at Garland Hall in protest, resulting in arrests of four students after the Baltimore police and fire departments were called to evict the protestors. Over 100 professors have since spoken out in opposition to the creation of the police force.
Last June, University President Ronald J. Daniels announced that plans for the Johns Hopkins Police Department (JHPD) were suspended for at least two years following a wave of protests across the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd. The JHPD Accountability Board, which was established last February, was also suspended in August.
At the hearing, Carter noted that Hopkins already has over 1,000 security personnel on campus and that University leaders had indicated there was no urgent need for JHPD when the suspension of plans were announced.
“It should not have required the protest of George Floyd to come to that conclusion, given the fact that they’ve had staff, residents, students overwhelmingly not in support of the police force,” she said. “Hopkins has a record of exploiting generations of persons of color, city and University namesake.”
Carter stressed the need to re-evaluate the 2019 law to reflect the nationwide conversation on accountability and transparency of policing in America.
Ikechukwu Enenmoh, a second-year medical student at the School of Medicine, spoke at the hearing on behalf of the Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins and the Middle East neighborhood, an East Baltimore community near the Hopkins Hospital.
“The area that the private police is set to be initially deployed is the Middle East neighborhood, which is already heavily policed and maintains a prominent Hopkins security guard presence,“ he said. “The reasoning why patrolling is set to begin in this neighborhood had yet to be clarified to Middle East residents and only offers a glimpse of the transparency that Hopkins has failed to explain behind the process.”
He also cited University leaders’ lack of acknowledgment of the widely circulated petition signed by over 6,000 community members in opposition to the police force as evidence of the University’s lack of accountability.
Sophomore Nene Okolo, a member of the Black Student Union, stated that she believes the administrators only announced the suspension of the police force to wait for the momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement to die down in an interview with The News-Letter.
“Hopkins values its image in the public, so they will do anything to maintain a good standing in society. If that requires having police to prevent shootings in their opinion, then that’s something that they would go ahead and do, even if it’s not beneficial,” she said. “Many students feel unsafe with armed police presence on campus, and even though that’s the case, I feel that they believe police are still the best solution to being in Baltimore.”
Okolo feels that the University is using the JHPD to appeal to other elite institutions, marketing Hopkins to be safer. She asserted that while there may be high crime rates in the surrounding areas, the campus itself is safe and having a private police force may endanger Black students.
Connor Scott, acting vice president for security at Hopkins, reaffirmed the University’s commitment to establishing a small private police department during the hearing.
“Blocking the department before it began would have abandoned years of hard work by community members and legislators and would have continued to burden the Baltimore Police Department while leaving Johns Hopkins without a viable solution for addressing the very serious threat of violent crimes that we face today in the city,” he said.
He testified against the bill during the hearing and clarified that there is little difference between the JHPD and the Baltimore Police Department, except that the latter will still be in charge of investigating more serious crimes, such as those related to violence.
“All the officers will have the same authority as all officers in the state of Maryland. They would have the same authority to handle any type of emergency,” he said. “It’s really the same as all other departments in Maryland. The only difference is that it is funded by a private institution, but this would not be the first department in Maryland to be funded privately.”
In an interview with The News-Letter last fall, Daniels stated that the University made the decision to pause plans for the JHPD to see if Maryland would implement changes to its Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR), which safeguards officers’ rights during investigations and police disciplinary processes.
The General Assembly is currently considering several other bills related to increasing policing transparency, including one that would repeal the LEOBR. Another bill would prohibit private universities from forming their own police departments.
Leon Purnell, executive director of the East Baltimore Men and Families Center, has resided in the community near the Hopkins Hospital his whole life. During the hearing, he cited the attempted insurrection at the Capitol in early January as evidence of the need for more policing.
“We cannot afford to not have policing wherever we can get it,“ he said. “The unthinkable happened on the sixth. What if something like this happened at a college or university? I told people that the reason I supported this was that if my child went to that school, I would want them to be protected, and that’s what everyone should be thinking about too.”
He also testified that the University’s involvement of students, faculty and community members on its committees for planning the JHPD demonstrate the administration’s accountability on the matter.
In an email to The News-Letter, Karen Lancaster, assistant vice president of external relations for the Office of Communications, stated that if the bill is passed, the University will reevaluate its next steps. She maintained that despite the administration’s concern with public safety threats in the Hopkins community, leaders have not done any additional planning during the pause.
“Enacting this bill without any meaningful replacement to the legislation authorizing the JHPD would leave us at continued risk and without the tools needed to respond to violent crime and keep our community safe,” she wrote. “A future JHPD would continue to embody many of the reforms that are now considered national best practices, including unprecedented commitments to transparency, accountability, oversight, and community engagement. A future JHPD would be one of the most progressive police departments in the country.”
Lancaster explained that the University is currently making improvements to existing security operations and has partnered with community members to create alternative approaches to public safety.
These measures include the launching of the Innovation Fund, which Connor Scott cited in the hearing, and investment in Baltimore City’s intervention programs. Some of these programs, supported by Mayor Brandon Scott, include Safe Streets, Roca and focused deterrence — a nationally-recognized, evidence-based model for crime reduction.
In an email to The News-Letter, Enenmoh urged students to take action to pass the bill by emailing senators and garnering support.
“Even if this bill does not pass, we maintain tons of support. Furthermore, if we can get Mayor Brandon Scott to take a stance on this position — the other senators are likely to follow suit,” he wrote. “There will be more legislation introduced into the House of the General Assembly, so we urge everyone to stay vigilant and remain involved in the process.”
Sophomore Neil Hooloomann, director of Indigenous/Native American affinity for the Men of Color at Hopkins Alliance (MOCHA), reaffirmed the organization’s opposition to the private police force. He asserted that the University needs to listen more to the needs of the students.
“We believe that a private police force may unfairly profile students of color and racial minorities on campus, creating a potentially unsafe environment for these students,” he wrote. “MOCHA works with students from minority backgrounds to amplify their voices and raise their concerns to Hopkins administrators to ensure that the University understands that a private police force is not beneficial to the well being of these students.”
The bill has completed its first reading and will be referred to a committee in the Senate.
Eunice Namkoong contributed reporting to the article.