Worried about over-policing in Baltimore and across the country, Johns Hopkins University students, faculty members and others on Wednesday protested the school’s efforts to establish its own police force.
Students Against Private Police demonstrated days before state lawmakers are to debate the issue — and one year after the group defeated a similar effort during the last legislative session.
More than 100 people gathered holding signs stating “Keep guns off campus” and “No private police” amid piles of days-old snow outside the Milton S. Eisenhower library.
Donald Gresham, a longtime resident of East Baltimore, voiced his concern about what such a police force could mean to neighborhoods around Hopkins. “As a black man in East Baltimore, there is a major concern that we will wind up being the ones harassed, we will wind up being the ones that will be locked up, we will be the ones knocked on the ground,” he said. “The concern is no one is accountable for what they do to the people in East Baltimore.”
Chisom Okereke, president of Johns Hopkins’ Black Student Union, told the group it was “truly wild” that, as a student majoring in public health, she sees that “this institution teaches me how to reduce crime and improve situations for those living in low-income situations and, at the same time, the institution is pushing this damaging legislation in Annapolis. It goes against everything I’ve been taught.”
At issue is Hopkins’ plan to convert its current security force into a police department with roughly 100 officers. The university employs a private security force of roughly 1,000 people to monitor its Homewood campus in North Baltimore and the medical campus that surrounds Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. The police force would replace a group of armed off-duty Baltimore police officers and sheriff’s deputies that Hopkins currently pays to patrol near the campus.
“Johns Hopkins University welcomes the engagement of our campus community, neighbors, alumni, elected officials and others who have voiced their views on legislation to establish a small, community-oriented and publicly-accountable university police department,” Johns Hopkins spokeswoman Karen Lancaster wrote to The Baltimore Sun Wednesday. “The overall response to Senate Bill 793 has been quite positive, as the bill addresses the concerns raised previously. … The bill as written requires unparalleled oversight and accountability to State and local government and the public, more than any other law enforcement body in Maryland.”
At the protest, Lester Spence, associate professor of political science, spoke out, concerned that the school could be contributing to over-policing and over-incarceration. He worried that police could be tasked with solving problems best addressed by other means.
“What this is about is keeping Hopkins from getting a private police force, but this is far bigger than that,” he said. “How do we deal with mental heath? Police. How do we deal with kids on the corner? Police.”
Even as he described how two African-American security guards had protected him during a “racist incident” on campus, he said reliance on police is a problem, generally. “When we make the decision to have more police, we’re increasing the size of the police state in Baltimore. There are more employees in Baltimore employed by the Police Department than any other agency in Baltimore. We are doubling down on that.”
Lawrence Jackson, professor of history, said, “In Baltimore and in the United States in general, we have over-invested in police and military solutions and we have underinvested in communities and education.”
He said the federal government had replaced a “war on poverty” with a “war on crime” that has led to a state “apparatus” of punishment. He said as the largest employer in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins could be perpetuating that apparatus of punishment. “What happens at Johns Hopkins happens other places. We set the agenda.”
Protest leader Mira Wattal, a junior majoring in math, directed attendees to email their respective legislators from their phones. She said 2,651 people had signed an online petition against the police force as of Wednesday afternoon.
Hopkins says its force is badly needed as Baltimore experiences a large increase in violent crime: more than 300 homicides a year for four consecutive years. Aggravated assaults in the East Baltimore and Homewood areas reported to Baltimore police jumped from 50 in 2014 to 98 in 2018, according to figures reported by Hopkins. Robberies increased from 45 to 97 over the same time period.
Students Against Private Police have cast doubt on the crime figures.
The lobbying effort to authorize an armed police force at the university has won over friends in high places: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Rep. Elijah Cummings and billionaire alumnus Michael Bloomberg.
But to get its police force, which would be paid for by the university, it needs to aim a little lower: at the 22 Maryland delegates and senators who make up Baltimore’s General Assembly delegation.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.