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Johns Hopkins University to move forward with private police force, hires Massachusetts police commissioner to lead security efforts

Johns Hopkins University signaled it will move forward with disputed plans to create its own private police force as officials announced the appointment Tuesday of a Massachusetts police commissioner to lead institution security.

Cambridge’s top cop Branville Bard Jr. will start Aug. 30 as vice president for public safety, for the university and most of Johns Hopkins Medicine’s campuses and facilities worldwide.

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Bard also will “play a leading role in the development and implementation of the Johns Hopkins Police Department,” the announcement states.

Bard’s appointment is the first movement university officials have made in a year toward creating a private police force and comes at a time when students are away from campus. Officials halted plans for the police force last year amid nationwide protests against police brutality toward Black Americans.

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Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. is pictured during a press conference at Cambridge Police Headquarters regarding an incident where a 21 year old Harvard University student was alledgedly recorded being subjected to an excessive use of force by arresting officers.
Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. is pictured during a press conference at Cambridge Police Headquarters regarding an incident where a 21 year old Harvard University student was alledgedly recorded being subjected to an excessive use of force by arresting officers. (Jim Davis/The Boston Globe)

University leaders have argued the private police force is necessary to protect students in a city with high rates of violent crime.

Student activists, faculty members and lawmakers led a bitter fight against the plan, including a monthlong sit-in at the university’s main administration building in 2019 that ended with seven arrests. Officials announced in June 2020 that the university was putting those plans on pause for at least two years amid the protests nationwide about police brutality.

Having a vice president for public safety was a prerequisite for the university to begin negotiations on a memorandum of understanding with the Baltimore Police Department that would formalize the operations of the university’s police force. The university does not yet have a timeline for when negotiations will begin, said spokeswoman Jill Rosen in an email Tuesday.

In a joint statement, Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels, Health System President Kevin Sowers and Paul Rothman, CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, touted Bard’s “demonstrated commitment to developing progressive approaches to public safety,” which made him a clear choice for the job.

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“We hold the safety and well-being of all those who work, learn, or receive care at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine as our utmost priority, and we also believe fundamentally in the need for all members of our communities to have trust and confidence in the leadership of our public safety operations,” the administrators said in their statement.

A career police officer, Bard worked more than two decades in the Philadelphia Police Department, rising to the rank of captain then inspector. He commanded the city’s largest police district and was responsible for more than 300 officers there. He also had responsibilities over the unit of forensic investigators and departmental training. Bard served two years as chief of the Philadelphia Housing Authority Police Department.

Almost four years ago, the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts hired him to lead its force of nearly 300 officers. Cambridge has a population of about 119,000 people as well as six colleges and universities and three hospitals within an area of 6.4 square miles. The city saw one homicide in each of 2019 and 2020.

Bard is looking for a home in Baltimore City where he said hopes to build trust with community members and university stakeholders.

“It’s always been my experience that people want to feel safe,” he said. “What they don’t want is for the mechanism providing that safety to also makes them feel unsafe. We want to build something that advocates would want to build.”

The Hopkins police force would be part of a complex system designed to provide public safety, Bard said, which includes the university’s behavioral health crisis response initiative aimed at supporting students, employees and community members who experience a crisis on or near campus.

State Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, blasted the university for making a “terrible miscalculation” given the number of protests in Baltimore last summer against police brutality. The move, she said, was “tone deaf” to the concerns raised by some students, faculty and community members.

“The premise that JHU needs a private police force is wrong,” Carter said. “It can’t possibly be what’s best for the community, which is very divided over wanting any police.”

Carter, who sponsored a bill to revoke Hopkins’ ability to create a police department, said it is up to legislators to make the “right decision” independent of the will of university administrators. The policing proposal won overwhelming support in 2019 from the General Assembly following intense lobbying from the university.

Some opponents to the project said this week that they were disheartened to hear the university was moving forward with plans — but not surprised.

Donald Gresham, a longtime East Baltimore resident who joined in demonstrations against the police force, said the university has done little to build any trust with its neighbors.

Gresham sees the university’s pursuit of a private police department as a “plantational” move that could leave people of color feeling like they are under constant surveillance, he said.

“This institution doesn’t hear anything besides its own voice,” he said. “They’re not listening to us.”

“A police department that’s run by a private institution is really antithetical to genuine accountability for all of us residents in Baltimore City,” said Toby Ditz, who joined dozens of faculty members last year in signing a letter to the university board of trustees opposing the plan.

Ditz believes renewed efforts will be met with continued opposition from students, faculty and community members.

Students who participated in the sit-in two years ago could not be reached for comment or did not return messages Tuesday. The student protest group, Students Against Private Police, did not return a message.

Hopkins administrators praised Bard as an “effective, community-oriented law enforcement professional and as an outspoken advocate for social justice, racial equity and police reform.”

Bard has lectured on racial profiling and published his dissertation on the subject Racial Profiling: Towards Simplicity and Eradication.” While chief of the Philadelphia Housing Authority Police, Bard had the department begin tracking traffic stops for the first time.

While at the Cambridge Police Department, Bard was working to establish an office that would track and grade in real time officers’ interactions with residents. He wanted to measure any differences in the ways officers treated people of different races. The results are to be published in an online dashboard so the city may follow along.

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”It’s our city’s loss, losing someone like him,” Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said. “He has an open-door policy, always picks up a phone call — I don’t think he’s never not picked up a phone call — he’s always responsive, always out and about in the community.”

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Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon recalled the days in July 2018 when the city saw a brazen daytime shooting across from a children’s park. Mallon was shaken; she called the police commissioner. She expected hollow reassurances. Instead, he invited her to sit in on a briefing with his command staff about the investigation.

”It just showed the level of transparency that he’s willing to go to,” she said. “That kind of thinking around partnership and friendship will be a devastating loss to Cambridge.”

Still, Bard provoked criticism last summer over the department’s supply of military-grade equipment.

According to a Boston Globe article, Bard told the Cambridge City Council that the police department doesn’t get military equipment. In fact, the department’s inventory listed sniper rifles, a BearCat armored vehicle and dozens of M4 assault rifles.

Bard later explained that he meant the department does not possess weapons that are restricted only to the military by law, according to the Boston Globe. He defended the arsenal, too, provoking criticism from some on the City Council and advocates who called for the demilitarization of local police.

Bard said he wants to create a culture that “doesn’t tolerate the slightest abuse of citizens.” At the end of the day, folks want to feel safe in their communities and in their interactions with law enforcement, he said.

“We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen here at Johns Hopkins,” Bard said. “You have the commitment from the highest levels of the institution. The message was loud and clear, and I’m going to carry that torch forward.”

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