Over the objections of student protesters, Maryland’s House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve controversial legislation to authorize an armed police force for the private Johns Hopkins University — clearing the way for the bill to become law.
The 94-42 vote in the House of Delegates came after the state Senate approved similar legislation by a 42-2 vote.
Before the House vote, some protesters interrupted the floor session, chanting: “No private police! No private police! No private police!”
But a majority of the Democratic-controlled House sided with proponents of the bill, who believed the 100-officer force is needed to help with Baltimore’s high crime rate. The city has suffered from more than 300 homicides four years in a row.
Del. Cheryl Glenn, an East Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the city’s House delegation, argued on the House floor in favor of the force.
“The first issue that’s addressed to us is public safety,” said Glenn, who lost her brother to a homicide. “What people are afraid of is crime. Our crime rate is off the chains.”
Later Thursday evening, the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 9-2 to accept the House’s changes, paving the way for the revised bill to be approved by the Senate.
Baltimore Senators Jill P. Carter and Mary Washington continued to oppose the bill. Washington asked for more time to consider the latest changes to the bill, but committee chairman Sen. Bobby Zirkin pushed to take the vote.
Washington said it’s been a “farce” that the Hopkins force will enhance public safety in the city.
“This is so that Hopkins can put in its literature that it has a private police force,” she said.
Once the Senate gives final approval to the bill, which is expected, it heads to Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration. The Republican governor has said he supports the bill.
Maryland law allows public institutions to operate police departments, including Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the University of Baltimore. But Hopkins — as a private institution — is not currently authorized to have such a force.
The legislation would keep Hopkins police within a tight perimeter around its Homewood academic campus, the medical campus in East Baltimore and the Peabody Institute conservatory in Mount Vernon.
The patrol areas have borders that in some cases hug the school’s properties, and in others go a block or a block and a half beyond them. The force would be allowed to patrol beyond those areas only if the university gained support from neighboring community associations. Officers could, however, respond to an emergency near the campus.
More than 60 Johns Hopkins University faculty members signed an open letter opposing an armed school police force, echoing concerns from students who have organized over the last year through the Students Against Private Police group.
After members of the group were escorted Thursday from the State House, the student activists released a statement that said “this is no time to vote through a bill granting Johns Hopkins unprecedented powers in the state for privately operating a police force.”
“It privatizes policing as an essential public good, it adds more police to an already overpoliced city, the bill is confusing and vague in its actual execution, and will do nothing to address Baltimore’s real public safety needs,” the statement said.
For decades, some residents of the poor neighborhoods surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital have had an uneasy relationship with the billion-dollar institution. Famously, relatives of the late Henrietta Lacks are seeking compensation from Hopkins for the unauthorized use of her cells in research that led to decades of medical advances.
Del. Stephanie Smith of East Baltimore voted against the legislation, saying her neighbors “do not feel that this is going to be for them.”
“Their concerns are about an entity that has no expertise in policing that has a compromised relationship with the community that is multi-generational,” Smith said.
She added that a young boy recently asked her: “’How are you going to protect me from the Johns Hopkins private police force?’”
A day before the vote, the House of Delegates accepted a series of amendments to the legislation from the House Judiciary Committee.
One amendment requires a member of the university's Black Faculty and Staff Association to sit on an accountability board that would oversee the force. Another prohibits the force from using surplus military equipment, and a third requires training officers on the legal use of searches. The committee also added an amendment requiring officers to have their body-worn cameras turned on.
The university police department would replace a unit of armed, off-duty Baltimore Police Department and sheriff’s deputies that Hopkins pays to patrol near the campuses. The university also employs an unarmed private security force of roughly 1,000 people to monitor its campuses.
The Hopkins bill — named the Community Safety and Strengthening Act — also would require the state to provide $3.5 million for city youth programs and another $1 million for the YouthWorks summer jobs program. And it calls for the Hopkins police force to establish at least one Police Athletic League center in Baltimore. The bill mandates the state contribute $10 million for capital spending on community development projects.
Nicole Hanson-Mundell, the executive director of Out For Justice, said lawmakers should have taken more time to study the issue before authorizing a private police force. While the issue had come up last year before being withdrawn, new legislators have since joined the General Assembly.
“How do new senators come into this new leadership role and give Hopkins this new police force without studying it first?” she asked. “The residents we talk to do not trust Hopkins.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this report.