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Johns Hopkins University says controversial security team has been on campus for years

A special security unit at the Johns Hopkins University that has recently drawn the concern of student activists has been working at the school for years, university officials said.

Students expressed concern this month after spotting members of the special response unit around campus. Some linked it to the university’s proposal this year to launch its own police force.

But university officials said the unit, which operates primarily on the school’s East Baltimore campus near the Johns Hopkins Hospital, was established in 2001.

“This unarmed team was created as a result of a security assessment shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and is responsible for patrolling the hospital area, responding to significant security events, and providing proactive enforcement when necessary,” the university said in a statement.

The activist group Students Against Private Police says it saw law enforcement personnel carrying firearms and wearing bulletproof vests with the words “Hopkins Special Response Unit” at commencement ceremonies in May. Student organizer Evan Drukker-Schardl said he saw an armed officer on campus at Hopkins’ Spring Fair in April.

Hopkins officials said Special Response Unit members are not armed.

“The SRU is present at these and other Johns Hopkins events,” university spokesperson Dennis O’Shea wrote in an email. “SRU officers, however, do not carry firearms. They may have been confused with off-duty Baltimore city police or sheriff’s deputies who also support these events.”

Aside from the Special Response Unit, the university employs 56 full- and part-time Campus Safety and Security officers at its Homewood campus.

The state-commissioned special police officers do not carry firearms, but have “full arrest powers on all university property throughout Maryland,” the university says on its website. They have been on campus for “many years,” O’Shea said.

There are also “support officers,” who are contracted employees with AlliedUniversal. They are not Hopkins employees but patrol the university on foot and bicycles and in security vehicles.

Off-duty Baltimore police also patrol the university, particularly on Charles Street and in the Charles Village and University Parkway areas.

Hopkins has been considering expanding the SRU to the school’s Homewood campus to address spikes in crime, the university said in the statement.

The Baltimore delegation to the General Assembly agreed this year to introduce legislation that would enable Hopkins to become the first private university in Maryland with its own police department. But lawmakers refused to endorse the proposal, saying there was not enough support from the community.

Several public universities in the city, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore, the University of Baltimore, Morgan State University and Coppin State University, maintain police forces. But private institutions such as Hopkins lack the legal authority to maintain forces.

Hopkins says its plan to expand the Special Response Unit is intended to keep students safe. Opponents say systemic racism in municipal police departments will replicate itself on campus.

“Rather than intensifying their armed security presence, Hopkins should contribute to existing community efforts to reduce violence in Baltimore,” Students Against Private Police said in its statement. “Hopkins has the unique opportunity to flip the script, advocating for restorative justice solutions in place of the hyper-decriminalization of black and brown Baltimoreans.”

The student noted that the university circulated a job posting soliciting officers to patrol the Homewood campus. A description on LinkedIn said applicants “must be trained and certified” to use weapons such as firearms and Tasers.

“This is just another addition to this pattern of unaccountability and dishonesty in a process that needs to be open and have community and student input,” Drukker-Schardl said. “So I think there’s a lot of continued anger about that. We’re still going to be actively opposing any attempt to create a private police force.”

O’Shea said the job posting dated to the fall.

“Campus Safety and Security posted positions for a Special Response Team for the Homewood campus last fall when the university was considering expanding,” he said in an email. “We have since removed that posting pending review of our security needs.”

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