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Hopkins needs to create a police force, but it needs to do it the right way

Johns Hopkins made a big mistake in failing to reach out to the community before requesting legislation that would allow it to create an armed, sworn police force on and around its campuses. Hopkins President Ron Daniels and other top officials should have anticipated, given the current mistrust of the Baltimore Police Department and the historic mistrust of Hopkins by many in Baltimore’s black community, that such an idea would generate a backlash. The question Baltimore residents and officials need to ask now is this: Was that an error of judgment borne of a sense of urgency to address a truly alarming rise in crime, or did it reflect a deeper insensitivity that is indicative of how such a force would be run? Based on the university’s willingness to scale back its proposal and bind itself in statute to a series of accountability and transparency standards, we conclude that it’s the former.

We believe this needs to happen, and we have confidence that Hopkins can create a police force that would increase the safety of its students, staff and neighbors in a constitutional, community-centered way. But it will take more time and outreach than the university has given it so far. Legislators have decided to abandon an effort to pass an enabling bill this year and instead will refer the matter to a summer study. That’s the right call.

Allowing Hopkins to have a police force to augment its unarmed security is not a radical idea. Most big private universities have armed, sworn police forces — and not just those in cities. Even Princeton has one. And such forces are standard at Maryland public universities. Morgan, Coppin and the University of Baltimore all have them. Research studies from Philadelphia and Chicago found that private university police forces there significantly reduced crime on and around campus. Hopkins officials have reason to be concerned about crime right now. Although violence is trending downward citywide so far this year, 18 robberies — 16 at gunpoint — took place around the Homewood campus last fall. The university had a responsibility to recognize that its current security measures are not sufficient.

Some of the objections to the Hopkins proposal have reflected an idea that police are inherently a malign force, particularly for minorities. That level of mistrust is built on Freddie Gray’s death, the Department of Justice’s report on the Baltimore Police Department’s legacy of unconstitutional policing and the recent Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal, but its application to this particular proposal is puzzling. If Hopkins doesn’t have its own police, who will respond to serious crime on and around campus? The Baltimore Police Department. Those who would like to see the BPD reconstituted from scratch should find something appealing in the opportunity to do that with a new Hopkins police force — if, that is, it has the right focus, recruitment, training, oversight and accountability.

And that’s where the more common objection to Hopkins’ efforts comes in. Many people — residents and elected officials alike — believe this is moving too fast and without sufficient consideration and input on those very points. University officials have been formulating their plan since November, but the public and most officials didn’t know about it until after enabling legislation was introduced in February, which was itself quite late in the General Assembly session. The university has been feverishly meeting with stakeholders and legislators to refine its proposal, and it has made a number of important concessions. Among them, it has scaled back the areas the force would patrol, and it has agreed to bind itself in statute to accountability and oversight measures (including putting civilians on trial boards for alleged officer misconduct). It’s clearly heading in the right direction.

But even if the university could have perfected the policy in time for legislation to be approved this year, it wouldn’t have mattered if it had not first won the trust of those it is seeking to protect. There was no way to do that before the General Assembly adjourns just over a week from now, and Hopkins’ agreement to make an eventual memorandum of understanding with the city public and subject to a comment period would not have been enough to overcome a perception that the university had rammed this through over widespread objections.

Hopkins officials now need to take the next several months to conduct extensive outreach and dialogue with members of the community on campus and off, in City Hall and the State House. Work out the details in advance and come back to the General Assembly in January with emergency legislation. It could go into effect as little as four months later than a law enacted this year, and it would make an enormous difference in community members’ acceptance of a force designed for their benefit.

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