Baltimore lawmakers halt proposal to create Johns Hopkins police force

Maryland lawmakers will not endorse Johns Hopkins University’s proposal to create its own police force in Baltimore — at least not this spring.

Baltimore Del. Curt Anderson, chair of the city’s delegation to the General Assembly, said Friday the university did not establish enough community support for the idea, and the delegation plans to refer the bill to be studied over the summer. The action effectively ends debate on the idea until the fall.

Lawmakers from three different districts that are home to Hopkins’ schools and hospitals said they were inundated by concerns from constituents and called pushing forward with a bill now premature.

“There was no evidence that they (university officials) tried to build the support needed to make a major change like this, to put police powers in the hands of a private institution,” Anderson said.

City Councilman Robert Stokes Sr., whose district includes parts of Hopkins hospital in East Baltimore, said he was pleased with the decision to halt the legislation. He noted Hopkins leaders have said they began researching the idea last year — but Stokes said they didn’t tell him or local residents until legislation was introduced this month.

“I think there was a breakdown in communication,” Stokes said.

The lawmakers agreed that “a full vetting of the proposal had yet to be done and probably needed to be done,” Anderson said at a delegation meeting Friday.

Study over the summer and fall will allow community leaders and lawmakers to collect more input on how a university police force should operate, “if we go forward next year,” Anderson said.

Supporters of the plan said it would have brought more police resources into a city reeling from violence — and more than 300 homicides last year — without costing city taxpayers.

Hopkins officials said earlier this month they were seeking authority to form a police force, which several public universities in the city already maintain. The idea was backed by Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa and leading Baltimore lawmakers, including Anderson and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, both Democrats.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has supported the idea, and said Friday that a General Assembly study of the issue will help educate lawmakers as to why the proposal would benefit Baltimore. She pointed at Morgan State, Coppin State and other Baltimore universities that already have their own police forces, and said the plan would free up more Baltimore police to patrol the city’s streets.

“We need to focus our police on the streets of our city,” she said. “A study will give them an opportunity to learn. Educating folks is always a good thing.”

Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels and Paul B. Rothman, dean of the school’s medical faculty, wrote in a March 5 letter announcing the plan that creating a university police force has taken on “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.”

On Friday, Daniels and Rothman wrote in a letter to the university community and local residents that “we and the state legislature have decided” the legislation requires further consideration.

“The personal experiences, strongly held beliefs, and expert opinions we have heard significantly influenced our thinking on how best to move forward,” Daniels and Rothman wrote. “And the resounding call for early and deep engagement, especially with our students and surrounding communities, will drive our approach in the months to come.”

The university has 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 have provided security at both locations. Currently the university employs a private security force.

Darriel Harris, a graduate student in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he hopes the lawmakers’ decision will encourage the university to “think more holistically about safety and community impact.”

“Hopefully they can engage with students and with community members and ask for creative solutions,” he said.

Harris recently wrote in an op-ed for The Sun that creating a private police force would be “expensive and undoubtedly an acute danger for people like me — black people.”

“I could be doing something as simple as holding my phone and the police can kill me and then argue that it’s justified,” Harris said Friday. “I think police are necessary in some circumstances. But my experience with police has not been primarily positive. It’s been mostly negative.”

Alizay Jalisi, a Hopkins senior and member of the group Students Against Private Police, said she was concerned about how a university police department would handle campus sexual assault cases. She also feared it would lead to increased racial profiling.

Jalisi, who is also president of the Hopkins Feminists Club, said students who oppose the idea must now “create long-term plans for the next legislative session.”

In the neighborhood of Abell near the university’s Homewood campus, longtime resident Jo Ann Robinson said she had been “really blindsided” when the legislation was introduced.

“I hope that everything that happens now will be a really good-faith effort to do some really careful thinking and much more research,” Robinson said.

In a letter Thursday to state lawmakers, the Charles Village Civic Association said it had not had time to engage with the university, legislators and members to determine community support and its board did not support moving forward with the bill.

Sandy Sparks, a member of the association’s board who has supported the idea of a Hopkins police department, said going forward, there must be “on-the-ground community involvement.”

“I would continue to support it,” Sparks said, “but it requires extensive community input [and] involvement in order to make it workable.”

Though a hearing on the proposal was canceled, delegates still listened Friday to representatives of 1199 SEIU, a health care workers’ union that represents some staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Fight for $15, a group pushing for an increase in the state’s minimum wage. Both expressed concerns about whether a Hopkins police force would be accountable to the public.

“Our members were significantly concerned about a police force with guns in the city and in their workplace that would not have the same transparency as Baltimore’s police force,” said Jen Brock-Cancellieri, a senior policy analyst with 1199 SEIU.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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