Is Baltimore getting more dangerous, or do people just think it is?
That question and others were raised by dozens of Johns Hopkins University students and faculty at a forum held Wednesday to discuss the prospect of the school’s creation of a new police force.
Hopkins announced earlier this week that it was pursuing legislation in the Maryland Senate that would allow it and other private institutions in the city to create their own police forces. In a letter to students, school leaders said that “almost every other urban research university, across the country and in Baltimore, has a university police department as part of its security operation.”
Students said they had not heard of the measure until they received the letter from the school notifying them. And that was unacceptable, said Alina Spiegel, a 24-year-old medical student, given the bill’s far-reaching consequences.
“This would affect community members who live on or near Hopkins property, people who walk through or drive through,” she said.
The university maintains its Homewood campus in North Baltimore, as well as its medical campus alongside the Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. The proposed police force would provide security at both locations, officials said. It would operate under a memorandum of understanding with the Baltimore Police Department.
Baltimore has endured more than 300 homicides in each of the past three years, while other violent crime has increased as well. Before 2015, the city hadn’t had 300 or more homicides in a single year since 1999.
Hopkins officials said Wednesday that a police force was needed to combat both the perception and the reality that crime had increased, in a city where the police force was “stretched thin.”
The legislation has the backing of several Baltimore lawmakers, who say it will save taxpayers money and free up police officers.
But at the forum held on the school’s East Baltimore campus, students and teachers questioned whether crime has really gone up in the area, or simply if people thought that it had. They asked how a new police force would affect area residents, many of whom already view the institution with suspicion.
Some asked why Hopkins would want to enter into a partnership with the Baltimore Police Department, given the recent Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal and problems like those outlined in the Department of Justice report.
Naadiya Hutchinson, 20, an undergraduate student, said she wanted to know what training officers would receive to avoid racial profiling.
“I really want to make sure that Hopkins is doing the best practices possible,” she said.
Robert Kasdin, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Johns Hopkins Medicine, said the measure was still in its very early stages and that community input would be sought.
“We are at the beginning of a long legal process,” said Kasdin, adding it would likely take “years” to create the force.
Jeanne D. Hitchcock, who handles the university’s community relations, said Hopkins would be conferring with the school’s neighbors as plans progressed.
“We are out there in the community all day every day,” she said. “We know there are pockets of distrust and we try to overcome that with more communication.”
Following the forum, Spiegel said she was frustrated that school officials had cited the rising perception of crime as contributing to the need for a university police force.
“A lot of us are future physicians, future scientists. Perception is never something that we want to base such a huge action that could affect so many people on.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this story.