The University broadcasted its second virtual town hall on Sept. 29 at the School of Medicine’s campus in East Baltimore and its third fully virtual town hall on Sept. 30. The town halls were intended to garner community feedback on the draft of the Johns Hopkins Police Department (JHPD) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
Students and community members opposed to the JHPD interrupted proceedings at the town hall on Sept. 29. This followed the first town hall on Sept. 22, held at the Homewood campus, which was moved online after protestors staged a “Die-In“ at the in-person event.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Vice President for Public Safety Branville Bard Jr. asserted that students and community members should accept the need for policing.
“Policing is always going to be a necessary component of public safety,“ he said. “I would ask that everyone take up our collective energies and focus on how we can make this police department the most accountable department as the legislature intended it to be.”
Chris Tallent, a Baltimore resident and Hopkins alum, expressed doubts about JHPD’s purpose in an interview with The News-Letter.
“The Hopkins private police force is connected to efforts by [Hopkins] to control the city,“ he said. “[Middle East] is a perfect example. [Hopkins] is responsible — [they] kicked out 800 Black families from this neighborhood, so they could try to gentrify the neighborhood and move in a whiter and wealthier population. That’s wrong.”
The East Baltimore Development Initiative, a $1.8 billion partnership between the University and the city of Baltimore, is intended to reshape the neighborhood known as the Middle East. As part of the project, 800 predominantly Black and brown families were resettled outside of the neighborhood, with few able to move back.
Alisha, a student at Hopkins using a pseudonym, stressed that the University should focus on community needs in an interview with The News-Letter.
“Supporting the community members who were displaced in East Baltimore would be a worthwhile investment, [as well as] just listening to community demands more fully,” they said.
Before the Sept. 29 town hall started, protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside the auditorium. Though the University had designed a protest zone outside of the venue, protestors made their way inside.
Demonstrators chanted and whistled as the town hall was live-streamed on stage. Many made their way to the top of the auditorium and stood in front of the projector, obstructing the image of the live stream.
After half an hour, a Hopkins representative announced that the town hall was over. Protestors gathered outside the auditorium and shared their grievances about the JHPD with each other.
In an email to The News-Letter, a member of the Hopkins Police Accountability Board, who was granted anonymity, discussed their experiences with police harassment.
“I’ve had personal experiences with police harassment, as have my partner, my parents, extended family members and others,” they wrote. “The harassment became so bad at one point that we had to have our state [representative] intervene on our behalf to keep the police from repeatedly stopping us, trying to fine us, or otherwise bother us.”
According to them, studies have suggested that youth interactions with police are harmful to young people’s health. They expressed concerns about the implications of the MOU draft.
“I fear the same fate here, especially given that US Department of Justice has already called out policing practices in Baltimore as being explicitly racist and discriminatory.” they wrote, “More armed police aren’t the solution to our problems; they don’t prevent crime, only respond to it.”
The speakers at both town halls included Bard, Executive Director of Baltimore Community Mediation Center Erricka Bridgeford, Senior Adviser of Public Safety Rodney Hill and Baltimore Police Department Operations Director Eric Melancon.
During the virtual town hall on Sept. 29, Hill responded to a question from a community member about hiring standards and requirements for JHPD officers.
“Hiring standards are laid out by Maryland statute,“ he said. “It lays out such things as age requirement [and] education requirement...departments are allowed to go beyond those standards, and our plan is to go beyond the standards.”
The town hall on Sept. 30 was presented as an interactive live broadcast, where community members of the University and the greater Baltimore area sent feedback and questions via text and email.
At the town hall, a community member raised a question asking how the JHPD would avoid incidents like the death of Baltimore resident Devante Jones, who was killed by a retired corrections officer and an off-duty school police officer.
Bard emphasized that JHPD officers will prioritize safety.
“As a department, we're going to invest in training that...elevates the sanctity of human life above all else,” he said. “[JHPD] officers are going to be experts in de-escalating behavior [and] using force only when necessary.”
Bard described the importance of improving police training, such as incorporating the Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics (ICAT) course into the training process. ICAT places emphasis on ensuring everyone, not just police officers, leave police encounters safely.
Melancon expressed a positive outlook for the future of police departments.
“We've been in our consent decree and it's helping to shape and set an example for how police departments need to be developed from the ground up,” he said. “We intend on sharing that process, with those lessons and those mistakes.”
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