The lobbying effort to authorize an armed police force at the Johns Hopkins University has won over friends in high places: Maryland’s governor. The Senate president. The mayor of Baltimore. Rep. Elijah Cummings. And billionaire Michael Bloomberg.
But to get its police force, the university needs to aim a little lower: at the 22 Maryland delegates and senators who make up Baltimore’s General Assembly delegation.
And they are far from sold.
In interviews this week with The Baltimore Sun, a majority of the city legislators — whose support is critical to passing legislation that would allow the force — said they are undecided about how they’ll vote. Several argued that the university has much more work to do to earn their support. Even the lead sponsors of the Hopkins legislation say they’re not committed to voting for it.
“We must resist this path that is proposed by JHU,” Sen. Mary Washington of North Baltimore, a vocal critic of the proposal, wrote in a post that rallied opposition this week on Facebook. Like all the city’s legislators, she’s a Democrat.
A year after fierce community opposition caused Hopkins to fail in its initial effort to create its own police force, the university is trying again — and pulling out all the stops.
For months, Hopkins has held forums and “community conversations” to try to win public support — more than 125 meetings in all. It has pitched the idea to neighborhood associations across the city and set up a detailed website about the proposal. It has eight lobbyists working in Annapolis.
To address concerns about over-policing in the city, the university has proposed not one or two, but three oversight boards for its planned police department. And, responding to a common objection that the plan doesn’t address the root causes of crime, the legislation would require millions in new state money for youth programming.
Hopkins President Ron Daniels has personally pushed the plan, marching door-to-door in East Baltimore, clipboard in hand, to hear how residents feel about the university’s proposal.
“JHU has done a much, much better job this year at outreach and transparency,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, who represents neighborhoods near the Homewood campus and chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee.
McIntosh said she’s unsure how she’ll vote. “I’m still waiting to see what my communities want. My neighborhood board voted unanimously in favor. I am waiting to get feedback from others.”
In their meetings with community associations, Hopkins officials have said they learned a lesson last spring about the need to reach out to residents. Daniels has acknowledged missteps in the way the institution initially pursued the idea.
“We were dealing with a steep increase in violent crime and attempted to respond immediately,” said Rianna Matthews-Brown, Hopkins’ director of university initiatives. “We’ve tried to address and respond to what we’ve heard.”
This year’s offensive has gained some ground.
Anne Perkins, a co-president of the Tuscany-Canterbury Neighborhood Association, said her organization voted unanimously to back the bill after hearing from Hopkins officials. Perkins said Hopkins representatives met with the group repeatedly and addressed their concerns.
“Hopkins was able to answer every question we had,” said Perkins, a former state delegate who lives near the university’s main campus. “We were persuaded that it’s difficult for the Baltimore city police to cover the Homewood campus in a way that provides an adequate level of safety.”
On Friday, the effort gained another powerful ally with Cummings — one of the state’s most prominent politicians — endorsing the plan.
“I support the bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would grant Johns Hopkins the authority to establish a small and accountable police force on their campus,” Cummings said in a statement.
But others haven’t been as receptive.
The Abell Improvement Association voted 40-0-3 to oppose a Hopkins police force after taking a survey of neighborhood residents. The Greater Remington Improvement Association also voted to oppose the plan.
Responses to the Abell group’s survey included comments like this: “I don’t believe more guns is the answer to the increasing violence in our city and I am greatly concerned about the accountability of a private force.”
Bonnie Bessor, the association’s treasurer, said most responses sounded similar themes.
“Policing is a public service,” Bessor said, summing up many survey responses, “and it’s not something Hopkins should be meddling in.”
That view is shared by 15 student groups at Hopkins who have bonded together under the name Students Against Private Police. They released a statement Friday to “reaffirm our stance against any attempts to privatize policing and for community-based initiatives regarding public health and safety.”
“The implicit biases that lead to instances of escalation, of brutality, and of racial profiling cannot be undone by mere training or insubstantial policies,” the students wrote.
The students have planned a rally against the legislation on Wednesday at Hopkins’ Homewood campus.
At issue is Hopkins’ plan to covert 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.
Maryland law allows public institutions to operate police departments, including Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the University of Baltimore.
Hopkins says its force is badly needed as Baltimore experiences a large increase in violent crime while suffering from more than 300 homicides a year for four consecutive years.
From 2014 through 2017, aggravated assaults, including non-fatal shootings, have more than tripled across all Johns Hopkins Baltimore campuses, according to the university. Robberies, including armed robberies and carjackings, increased by 250 percent, the school said. There were 45 aggravated assaults in 2017, the university said, and 28 robberies.
While most of the city’s lawmakers say they’re undecided on the bill, Del. Curt Anderson is speaking out in favor.
“The community associations nearest the Hopkins campus are in favor of this,” Anderson said. “I am out there in front in favor of the Hopkins police force ... new police officers, how could that be a bad thing?”
Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, who represents portions of West Baltimore, agreed, citing the city’s high crime rate. “Anything that’s going to help Baltimore City with the amount of crime we have, to me that’s another set of eyes and another set of trained police officers,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ll do 100 percent, but right now I’m leaning towards that.”
While adding more police in a city that struggles with crime might seem like a no-brainer to some, lawmakers familiar with the history of Hopkins’ relationship with Baltimore communities say there’s a long-festering lack of trust. For decades, residents of the poor neighborhoods surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital have had an uneasy relationship with the billion-dollar institution. Famously, the family of Henrietta Lacks is seeking compensation from Hopkins for the unauthorized use of her cells in research that led to decades of medical advances. Residents near the Homewood campus successfully fought a university plan to bring in a new supermarket, which the neighborhood argued would hurt a longtime local grocer.
Meanwhile, many Baltimore residents are generally distrustful of law enforcement after an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department found the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a pattern of discriminatory policing, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson of Southeast Baltimore, who’s seeking an ethics opinion on whether he can vote on the Hopkins bill because he works at the institution, says he’s unsure whether the legislation will pass.
“The challenge is it’s become a proxy fight,” Ferguson said, between people who think the answer to the city’s violence is more police and those who favor long-term solutions to poverty.
In an effort to address both views, the Hopkins police bill — called the Community Safety and Strengthening Act — requires the state to provide $3.5 million for city youth programs and another $1 million for YouthWorks summer jobs. It also calls for the Hopkins police force to establish at least one Police Athletic League center in Baltimore.
The bill legislation says the force can operate on any property that is “owned, leased or operated” by Johns Hopkins, its hospital or the Peabody Institute. The legislation also says Hopkins police may patrol property adjacent to the campuses, including sidewalks, streets and parking garages. The university’s police department would have to adopt training standards from the Maryland State Police.
The new police force for the private university would be monitored by two new oversight boards — along with the city’s existing Civilian Review Board, which fields constituents’ complaints against police.
There would be a 15-member “accountability board” comprising students, staff, faculty and residents of nearby neighborhoods. Hopkins leadership would appoint a majority of the board’s members, but the mayor and city council president would each appoint a member. The board would meet quarterly and hold at least one public meeting a year.
Hopkins also would create a hearing board to oversee the discipline of officers.
Sen. Cory V. McCray of East Baltimore says he still has serious concerns about the bill.
He argues that it has weak limits on where Hopkins can police in the city, lacks local hiring requirements and allows the university to appoint too many members to its oversight board.
“You can’t have Hopkins police overseeing themselves,” McCray said. “You can’t have folks who come from rural jurisdictions that have never been in urban jurisdictions policing Baltimore. I feel very strongly and very adamantly about it.”
McCray called addressing his objections “non-negotiable.”
Washington said she understands that Hopkins is concerned about crime in Baltimore. But, she said, lawmakers must consider the possible consequences of granting “a single, powerful, well-funded, institutional private actor the same powers afforded local governments, counties and municipalities.”
Sen. Jill P. Carter of West Baltimore also has deep reservations about the bill.
“I have concerns about private police authorized to police individuals and communities beyond the boundaries of the Hopkins campus,” Carter said. “Attending Hopkins University is largely unattainable for the overwhelming majority of Baltimore residents — the same residents that struggle with the dual fear of unchecked violence and abuse by both other individuals and law enforcement officers.”
Washington has proposed compromise legislation to allow Hopkins to form a police force through a method she views as more accountable to the public.
Her plan would allow private colleges — not just Johns Hopkins — to have police forces that would be an extension of the University System of Maryland’s existing police forces.
But others think the city’s delegation is merely wasting time instead of the taking necessary steps to address Baltimore’s crime problem.
Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York and benefactor of the Johns Hopkins University who is considering a presidential run, said last month that it’s “ridiculous” the institution doesn’t have an armed police force. He said parents deciding where to send their children to college are voicing concerns.
“Unfortunately, the crime rate in Baltimore is still very high,” he said. “Although I’ve supported this mayor who I think is trying very hard to reduce the murder rate, she needs help.”