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Opposition to Johns Hopkins University private police force simmers ahead of town hall meetings

Three years after protests erupted at the Johns Hopkins University over its plan to create a private police force, some opponents are promising disruptions to upcoming town hall meetings and urging Baltimore City’s mayor to block the measure.

The opposition movement has been largely quiet since the state’s largest private university said in June 2020, amid the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, that it would pause work on its police force. A year later during summer break, when campus was mostly empty, Hopkins hired Branville Bard Jr. to lead its police force.

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Johns Hopkins University students stage a sit-in in 2019 to protest an armed police force on campus.

Hopkins reignited resistance efforts with the release Monday of a first draft of its memorandum of understanding with the Baltimore Police Department, an agreement crucial to the creation of the private armed police force.

The draft outlines how Hopkins’ police force would have jurisdiction over any property owned, leased, operated by or under the control of the university as dictated by specific boundaries within its Homewood, East Baltimore and Peabody campuses. Jurisdiction also would include public property immediately adjacent to those campuses as well as anywhere else as long as Johns Hopkins Police Department officers are in pursuit of a suspect.

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Beginning Thursday, Bard will lead several public forums about Hopkins’ pending agreement with the Baltimore Police.

With the memorandum now public, the university will wait 30 days to send the draft to the City Council, which will get its own 30-day period to examine the 21-page document. Bard said he hopes to have a final version of the memorandum posted online by the end of the year.

In the meantime, some activists who opposed the measure still see a path to blocking it and have promised disruptions like the ones seen in April 2019, when the Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins surprised President Ron Daniels by disrupting an alumni breakfast.

Organizations and activists also are calling on Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott to block the agreement when it arrives on his desk and stop Police Commissioner Michael Harrison from signing the memorandum. Scott expressed concerns about police force accountability as early as 2018.

Scott did not respond this week to multiple requests for comment.

Other activists say their energy has waned. Hopkins Black Student Union President Jayla Scott said this partly comes from the gap between upperclassmen who understand the issue and underclassmen who don’t know how to feel about the private police force yet.

State Sen. Jill P. Carter, who used to vocally oppose the police force, now says the memorandum’s finalization is a “predictive inevitability” and that the community should voice its concerns and ideas to ensure Hopkins’ force becomes “a model of community-first policing.”

“Unless [the legislation creating the Hopkins police force] is repealed,” Carter said, “we have to move forward.”

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Carter said she has spoken with Bard and trusts him. She said the Hopkins administration should empower him to do his job. However, she said, the community should remain at the helm of the police force and said that if relationships aren’t mended, then the police force will not be effective.

“While I’ve long opposed establishing a private force governing any jurisdiction, the JHU force will happen,” Carter said. “The bill passed through the General Assembly [in 2019], and subsequent conversations to repeal it were snubbed. It’s our responsibility to make the best of this situation and ensure vigorous oversight and accountability of the force.”

Bard describes Carter as a “staunch advocate.” He said that through discussion, he learned the two of them agreed on more than they did not, a pattern he’s witnessed in his nearly three decades in policing.

“I’ve learned that you don’t treat advocates like adversaries because what they bring to the process is going to help you put a better product out, so I welcome our advocacy,” Bard said. “And at the end of the day, there’s very little disagreement between where I sit and where most of the advocates who I’ve encountered [sit].

“They all want to be protective of individuals, and I share their desires.”

Bard said he has not spoken to Scott about the memorandum specifically.

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The memorandum is in only its first iteration, Bard said, and it will change as feedback is considered. However, he said, he wants to “temper expectations” about what will be addressed with the memorandum, since it’s narrow in scope and focuses on defining jurisdictions between Hopkins’ police force and the Baltimore Police. He said he anticipates many community members will come with suggestions for Hopkins police force policy, which is a separate matter that also will undergo a community feedback process.

The tone of the resistance now contrasts starkly with the scene in 2019, when dozens of people staged a monthlong sit-in that culminated in multiple arrests.

The Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins said in an interview via Twitter that it still has plans of “shutting down all efforts to proceed with JHPD.”

The organization said that over the past few years it has “exhausted all avenues for having community voices listened to” and is resorting to shutting down more university events the way it did in 2019. On Tuesday, the coalition announced on Twitter that it will be hosting die-ins, demonstrations at which protesters lie down as if they were dead, at the in-person town halls.

Jayla Scott said the Johns Hopkins Black Student Union held general meetings throughout the university’s pause on police department development, engaging students with racial justice work. She said the organization is creating email and phone call templates that students can use to push the mayor to not sign the memorandum.

“Drive has dwindled down,” Jayla Scott said. “Community organizers have been fighting this whole time so they are exhausted, and the students who understand the harm of JHPD are graduating seniors. Students haven’t had the opportunity to truly engage with the reality of a police force, but facilitation by the BSU and other groups may change that.”

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Jayla Scott said she may attend the first town hall at Hopkins’ Homewood campus Thursday, but added that she doesn’t expect university officials to listen genuinely.

“These town hall meetings are always for show,” she said.

Other groups, such as Jews United For Justice, also have opposed the creation of a private police force, but it said this month that the organization is not actively working on the issue.

“When there are opportunities to express our opposition publicly, [we] will do so,” representative Molly Amster said in an email.

Still, Councilwoman Odette Ramos said she’s been hearing more concerns from her constituents since Hopkins resumed work on its police force, an entity she continued to oppose. She said there are concerns about police training and accountability, police brutality and racial profiling.

Ramos introduced a resolution for a hearing about the memorandum at City Hall, which Bard said he is open to as well as any other transparency measures. She said the Charles Village neighborhood, which she represents, adjacent to the Hopkins campus, already has multiple layers of security and policing, and yet there is still crime. She said adding another layer of policing is not the answer.

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“You have to invest in the community so people aren’t doing [crime],” she said.

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Hopkins said it has made those investments. In a news release, Bard said the university just completed one year of its $6 million Innovation Fund for Community Safety, dedicated to initiatives addressing root causes of violence in Baltimore.

Ramos said that though Hopkins has made some community investments, the institution could be better.

Bard said public safety should be a comprehensive system made of investments that address the root causes of crime as well as policing.

“They deserve policing that protects and upholds the constitutional rights of everyone,” Bard said. “So it’s not either-or — it’s both.”

Ramos said her focus has since turned to the mayor and the police commissioner, noting that if they do not sign the memorandum, there will not be a Hopkins police force.

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On Sept. 13, the faculty senate of the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences unanimously passed a resolution declaring the group’s opposition to the Hopkins police force. Hopkins faculty have been writing opposition letters to it since at least 2018.

“While a few colleagues expressed nuanced views in favor of the JHPD, far more opposed it, and many very personally and deeply,” the senate wrote in an email to its members. “We are confident that the Senate’s judgment reflects a wide-spread opinion among faculty, which holds from mild to very strong opposition to this initiative.”


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