Johns Hopkins University pushing bill to create its own police force in Baltimore

The Johns Hopkins University is advocating legislation in Annapolis that would authorize it to create its own police force in Baltimore.

The legislation already has the backing of several Baltimore lawmakers, who said it will increase safety in the city without costing taxpayer dollars.

Hopkins officials said Monday in a message to university community members that they have been mulling the idea for months, and believe it would bring the university in line with similar institutions across the country.

“The safety of our campus communities is a matter of utmost concern for Johns Hopkins, and the idea of a university police department has been suggested to us with increased urgency over the past year, given the challenges of urban crime here in Baltimore and the threat of active shooters in educational and health care settings,” Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels and Paul B. Rothman, dean of the school’s medical faculty, wrote. “Johns Hopkins’ current security program is unusual among its peers; almost every other urban research university, across the country and in Baltimore, has a university police department as part of its security operation.”

The university maintains its Homewood campus in North Baltimore, as well as its medical campus alongside the Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. The proposed police force would provide security at both locations, officials said.

Baltimore has endured more than 300 homicides in each of the past three years, while other violent crime has increased as well. Before 2015, the city hadn’t had 300 or more homicides in a single year since 1999.

Several public universities in the city, including Morgan State University and Coppin State University, already maintain police forces, but private institutions like Hopkins lack the authority to do so under state law.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, is sponsoring the bill to change that in the Senate. She called Hopkins’ creation of a police force “an appropriate step” for the university that will provide “additional service and security” on its campuses.

The university police force, which would operate under a memorandum of understanding with the Baltimore Police Department, would operate only on or near Hopkins properties within Baltimore city, not beyond.

“Just with the shortage of police officers in Baltimore city, that will be an area that we won’t necessarily have to be in,” Conway said.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said he supports the idea.

“Over the years we’ve been working closely with Johns Hopkins as they consider a wide range of public safety initiatives across their campuses and hospital facilities,” De Sousa said in a statement. “We fully support the creation of a Johns Hopkins University Police Department, just as we partner with other university police departments already established in Baltimore.”

De Sousa praised Hopkins’ recent hiring of former police commander Melissa Hyatt away from the police department last month to serve as the university’s vice president of security.

“This will be a great public safety partnership for many years to come and it’s good not only for Johns Hopkins but the city overall,” De Sousa said.

Conway said she is confident the bill will get a hearing. The legislative session in Annapolis ends next month.

Conway called the effort by Hopkins a “safety bridge” that will help the city maintain security and peace as it tries to build up its own police force.

City officials, including Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, have said that the city police force is hundreds of officers short. Recruitment has been a challenge as well, and the department is spending nearly a million dollars a week in overtime.

Pugh in a statement said that she and Daniels had been discussing ways to improve campus safety for some time and the idea for the university’s own police force is “not new” and fit within “common practice” at institutions across the country and in Baltimore.

“Commissioner De Sousa and I will continue to work with the Hopkins leadership to ensure a coordinated approach for a multi-layered and effective security program for the Hopkins community,” she said.

Del. Curt Anderson, who is supporting the bill in the House of Delegates, said he has seen how the University of Maryland having its own police force has benefited the university and the city, and wants the same sort of relationship with Hopkins.

“It frees up some time for Baltimore city police officers,” Anderson, a Democrat, said, and “creates the ability for them to communicate better when there is some serious type of crime going on.”

Hopkins has long maintained a security force, but their security personnel do not have police powers and cannot make arrests. Hopkins has said it will maintain the security force.

“Any time you can add police officers or trained police personnel to downtown Baltimore or anywhere in Baltimore without the city having to pay for it, I think it’s a plus,” Anderson said.

Hopkins said university officials visited peer institutions in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles in seeking advice on such an arrangement, and that the memorandum with police would be modeled on existing arrangements the city has with public universities.

The university’s police department would be “developed and implemented through a detailed agreement with BPD regarding the size, scope, training, and capabilities of a university police department in the same geographic area where we have patrols around our university and medical campuses,” Daniels and Rothman wrote.

“We see this as a critical opportunity not only to strengthen public safety in and around our campuses but also to build a model university police department that focuses specifically on the needs of our community and reflects contemporary best practices at universities with academic medical centers,” the university leaders wrote. “We expect the department to uphold in every way the core values of our institution, including a deep respect for freedom of expression, a meaningful connection to our neighbors, an unwavering commitment to equity and inclusion, and a promise of transparency and accountability.”

krector@baltsun.com

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