Johns Hopkins University officials are suspending for at least two years their plan to form an armed police force to patrol their three Baltimore campuses amid protests over policing and racial injustice sweeping the nation after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Floyd’s death May 25 set off a groundswell of protests against police violence and renewed attention to the university’s controversial plan to deploy as many as 100 sworn officers across its campuses. Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels said Friday that school officials decided to freeze everything for at least two years and participate in the discussion over police reform.
“We want to pause and see to what extent changes both at the federal and state level, and in the broad framework of policing and additional accountability, would impact anything that we would do at Hopkins,” Daniels said.
The university has not yet created its police force or hired the officers. A 15-member accountability board is tasked with overseeing the process and has only held its first meeting, according to the university.
“We are committing to a moratorium for two years,” Daniels said. “During that time, we’re very open to working to see how alternative approaches to public safety might work out, and to what extent they impact the need for sworn policing and the character of sworn policing.”
The moratorium reflects shifting public sentiments about policing in America, a shift hastened by Floyd’s death. The reality series “Cops” — one of the longest running shows in TV history — was canceled. Maryland lawmakers again are trying for reforms such as dismantling measures that keep police disciplinary records secret and banning departments from buying surplus weapons of war. The Baltimore City Council is considering cuts to its police department’s proposed $550 million budget next year. In Minneapolis, a majority of city council members announced their intent to disband their police force entirely.
Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, is charged with murdering Floyd, who is black. Three other officers are charged with aiding and abetting murder. A video captured Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and set off protests around the world. Over the past two weeks, thousands of people took to the streets of Baltimore in days of mostly peaceful marches and rallies. On Friday, they returned to paint “DEFUND THE POLICE” on a street outside City Hall.
The university’s decision comes up short of heeding renewed calls from students, professors and community members who want plans for a campus police force abandoned entirely. Faculty members circulated a petition online and collected more than 5,300 signatures within days.
“George Floyd’s death was so repulsive and it was so up-front, and that coming after [the killings of] Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, that it was just hard to ignore, and it helped people realize what was actually going on,” said Dr. Renee Johnson, a professor of mental health at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was gunned down in Georgia allegedly by white vigilantes. Three men are charged in his murder. Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, was shot and killed in a midnight raid by the Louisville police. Her family has sued the department.
“The difference is that now there is widespread understanding that police brutality is real,” Johnson said.
Advocates including Baltimore’s chapter of the nonprofit Peoples Power Assembly plan to protest Saturday afternoon against Hopkins and demand the university abandon plans for private police. They also want an end to the gentrification of East Baltimore around Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“Even if the university were to create a model police force, which by the way I think is a bit of hubris,” said Toby Ditz, professor emeritus of history at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, “the movement against over-policing is a movement against the creation and proliferation and sprawl of special police forces. We do not want to multiply special police forces and armed police forces on campuses.”
A Hopkins police department has been debated for at least two years across the campus and the city. Last spring, students locked down the main administrative building in a monthlong sit-in to protest the force and the university’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Several students chained themselves to a stairway.
“That’s the tragedy, that they didn’t listen to their own students," said State Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat and one of two state senators who opposed legislation enabling Hopkins police. "They were tone deaf. Now that the world has kind of taken notice of this issue, they are doing the right thing."
Students and faculty have said a campus police force would reinforce perceptions of their university as gated off from the city. They worry a private force would bring further disparities for people of color, who statistics show are more likely to be victims of police brutality. Further, private police by definition are less accountable than the current, public Baltimore Police Department.
A Hopkins police department, however, drew strong support from the late U.S. representative and civil rights champion Elijah Cummings. In a visit to Annapolis last year, he urged lawmakers to vote for a bill that would permit the force.
Cummings told lawmakers he hears from out-of-town parents asking whether it’s safe to send their children to college in a violent city such as Baltimore. The Maryland General Assembly passed the legislation overwhelmingly; Gov. Larry Hogan signed the bill last year.
Baltimore NAACP President Kobi Little opposed the legislation, but said he felt encouraged by the university’s decision to pause.
“We have been traumatized by police terror and police violence," Little said, “and I think that this decision reflects the Johns Hopkins institution’s commitment to the vision of [Mr.] Johns Hopkins and the vision of a just democracy where there is equality under the law.”
Titled the “Community Safety and Strengthening Act," the enabling legislation permits Hopkins to equip a force of no more than 100 armed officers to patrol its Homewood academic campus, the medical campus in East Baltimore, and the Peabody Institute conservatory in Mount Vernon. Officers can only patrol beyond their perimeter if Hopkins gains approval from neighbors.
University officials note the bill already contains progressive measures of police reform, such prohibiting officers from using military equipment, ensuring community members sit on trial boards and removing the legal protections that block lawsuits over misconduct. The bill also requires the state to provide millions of dollars to community programs in Baltimore.
Many of Maryland’s public universities have their own police departments, including Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the University of Baltimore. But Hopkins — as a private institution — was not authorized to have such a force without legislative approval.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.