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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Questions about a Hopkins police force are not ridiculous, but they don't win the argument, either

The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore’s largest and most prestigious employer, wants permission to establish its own police department at a time when the police department in Baltimore, one of the nation’s most violent cities, does not have enough officers.

So what’s the problem? Why hasn’t this already happened? Some, like billionaire Hopkins grad Michael Bloomberg, think it’s ridiculous that this is even a question, given Baltimore’s crime rate and the troubling rate of cops fleeing city employment, and they have a point.

To resignation, retirement or criminal conviction, the Baltimore Police Department has lost hundreds of officers since the death of Freddie Gray and the April 2015 unrest. Despite the urgent need for new recruits, the department finished 2018 with a net loss of 36 officers. Two-hundred-and-twenty officers left while 184 were hired. That’s terrible.

The mayor, however, says this was actually an improvement because the loss was not as heavy as in previous years. I suppose the mayor would be derelict if she did not try to spin things and put a smiley emoji on lousy news. But don’t tell us it’s warm and sunny when it’s cold and raining.

Last year’s shrinking of ranks might not have been as bad as previous years — the city had net losses of 158 officers in 2015, and 114 in 2016 — but a loss is a loss. It means the police department, with at least 400 fewer officers than it had in 2011 — a former commissioner told me the number is closer to 500 — is not gaining ground with recruitment.

The department actually did better in 2017, but the net gain that year was four officers, just enough for a robust game of Uno.

As if to counter the mayor’s spin, Sgt. Mike Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, came out the next day with his take on things, and it wasn’t pretty. He said the city has “no existing crime plan” and staffing is so bad that, at night, Baltimoreans should only expect to see patrol officers in response to the most urgent calls or reports of violence. (The mayor and police brass say things will be better with a new shift arrangement worked out between the city and the police union.)

But let’s be clear: The city needs hundreds more officers to get to full strength, to make arrests in more than 43 percent of homicides, to make people who live here and visit here feel safer than they feel now, to spread the word that Baltimore is trying to emerge from this depressing, four-year run of violence to become the thriving, growing East Coast city it ought to be.

We need more cops.

At its three city campuses — the university, the hospital and conservatory — Johns Hopkins already employs some armed, off-duty Baltimore officers, about 25 per day on different shifts, according to Susan Ridge, a Hopkins vice president for communications. The university wants authority from the Maryland General Assembly to establish its own department of 100 officers within about five years.

Given the staffing problems at the BPD and the violent crime of the last four years, opposition to Johns Hopkins adding its own police force seems weird to a lot of people.

But, if you’ve been paying attention, you should not be surprised. The opposition is rooted in mistrust and fear that armed cops employed by a private institution will mean more racial profiling, more abuse and possible brutality, more use of firearms. The questions about the proposal are understandable, given what the Justice Department found when it looked at the broken relationship between Baltimore’s African-American citizens and the city police.

Opponents want a more holistic approach, with, for instance, programs aimed at addressing the high rate of poverty at the root of a lot of the city’s crime.

Hopkins has been responsive to the concerns, promising to have trained officers in uniform and multiple layers of scrutiny and accountability. Those looking for more should be reminded that, in the aftermath of April 2015, the Hopkins president made a very public commitment to spur economic growth in low-income communities. In its first three years, through June 2018, the HopkinsLocal effort increased its spending with Baltimore businesses by more than $54 million, and it has made 1,017 new hires from targeted ZIP codes. As anti-poverty, anti-crime programs go, that’s pretty good.

People who knock Johns Hopkins ought to think about that. And they ought to think about what they’re suggesting at this place and time — that a city with an understaffed police force, beleaguered by a high volume of shootings and killings for four years (with 29 homicides in the first 43 days of the new year) should reject a proposal by its largest employer to put more cops on the streets in and around its campuses.

If there’s anything to worry about here, it’s the prospect of even more cops leaving the city ranks to join a Johns Hopkins Police Department.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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