There are sleeping bags rolled up in a corner, snacks strewn around, and almost every wall on the first floor of the Johns Hopkins University’s administration building is covered with posters decrying plans for a police department at the private institution.
A small group of students is in its third week of occupying Garland Hall. Never mind that last week, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law a contentious bill allowing Hopkins to create a force of armed officers.
“This new law creates the possibility for Johns Hopkins to create a private police force — but the police force is still not here,” said 20-year-old protester Evan Drukker-Schardl. “Given the power we’ve built up through the sit-in and opposition we’ve demonstrated, we’re continuing to work to ensure there is no police force.”
Hopkins, newly empowered to act on its leaders’ belief that a police force is necessary to keep its three Baltimore campuses safe, is meanwhile preparing to begin a multiyear process to roll out the force.
A university spokeswoman declined to make school officials available to discuss specific next steps or lay out a timeline.
In a statement, university President Ronald Daniels said the administration will spend this year working with the Baltimore Police Department to draft a memorandum of understanding and seek community comments about an accountability board for the future police department. Once drafted, the MOU will be posted online and presented to the public in at least two forums. The City Council and other residents will have 30 days to review the proposal and submit comments.
“We also will begin to seek input regarding how best to collaborate with our neighbors to identify areas near our campuses where future JHPD patrols could be welcome and effective, and we will develop plans for the phased recruiting and training of new officers in accordance with the exacting standards set by the legislation,” he wrote in a letter to the campus community.
The law authorizes Hopkins police to patrol within a tight perimeter around its Homewood academic campus, the medical campus in East Baltimore and the Peabody Institute conservatory in Mount Vernon. The borders cling to the school’s property in some cases, and in others, extend a block or so beyond them.
The force can patrol beyond those areas, the law states, only if the university gains support from neighboring community associations and City Council. Members of what is expected to be a 100-person department will also be able to respond to emergencies near campus.
Democratic City Councilman Brandon Scott says it’s up to Hopkins to request any border expansions. If it does, the council will develop a process to “hear and understand the wishes of the communities impacted.”
“We stand ready to handle the issue as needed,” said Scott, chairman of the public safety committee. “There’s no action needed from the council if they don't intend to go any further. If they do, we'll make sure it’s an open and transparent process so the will of the community is heard.”
Maryland law allows public universities — including Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the University of Baltimore — to operate police departments. As a private university, Hopkins needed the approval in the new law, which takes effect July 1.
After a heated debate leading up last week’s bill signing, it’s clear the university will be under a spotlight as it moves forward.
Daniels has said the legislation “grew out of an urgent need to address unacceptable increases in crime on and around Johns Hopkins’ campuses in Baltimore.”
For four years in a row, the city has suffered more than 300 homicides annually. In the East Baltimore and Homewood areas, where the school has campuses, aggravated assault reports have nearly doubled from 50 in 2014 to 98 in 2018, according to figures reported by Hopkins. Robberies increased to 97 from 45 over the same time period.
“After a year of extensive community discussion and consideration, including more than 125 community meetings, three legislative hearings, 18 amendments, and more than nine hours of testimony, the law reflects our shared commitment to reducing violent crime in Baltimore,” Daniels said in a statement.
Some celebrate the idea of a Hopkins force, saying they hope a stronger police presence will help curtail crime.
But those who oppose it — including the students camped out at Garland and dozens of faculty members who wrote an open letter to the administration — believe bringing armed officers on campus will instead put students and community members at risk, particularly people of color. Many surrounding neighborhood associations spoke out against the department proposal, too.
Agatha Gilman, a 19-year-old freshman who has been sleeping and working out of Garland Hall, pointed to an April 16 shooting in New Haven, Conn., in which a Yale University police officer and an officer from another agency opened fire on a car while investigating an attempted armed robbery. Both officers are black, as is a passenger in the car who was wounded. The shooting ignited anger and fear on the Yale campus.
Sen. Mary Washington, a Hopkins alumna who voted against the legislation, says the university should use the MOU process to repair damage done in the community during the university’s campaign for a force. The Baltimore Democrat said that means taking things slow and engaging with groups who still object to the force.
Also, she wants the police accountability board to be required to include members who are representatives of surrounding neighborhoods and students.
Daniels has promised to listen.
“We believe this law represents the most comprehensive and progressive legal standards for community and university policing anywhere,” he said in a statement. “We also understand that differences of opinion remain on this topic, and we are firmly committed to working with our students, staff, faculty and neighbors to continue hearing varying viewpoints and to ensure public accountability, public transparency and public input within a JHPD.”
Washington says a good first step would be for Daniels to talk with the crowd of students holding the sit-in at the administration building. Student protesters say he hasn’t met with them during their ongoing demonstration.
As they remain camped out in Garland Hall, students can look up and see the door to the president’s office.
“They can’t ignore us for much longer,” Gilman said Friday. “This isn’t a race. It’s a marathon.”