What Hopkins needs to do to win community support for a police force

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wants to make reducing Baltimore crime a top priority in the upcoming General Assembly session, and we are certainly hopeful that will translate into more state support for the city in its ongoing struggle with violence. This fall, Mayor Catherine Pugh outlined a series of investments the state could make that would have the greatest impact, and Mr. Miller indicated support for some of the most important ones, including funds to put more officers on the street and to create a new training academy at Coppin State University to speed up the hiring process and improve the quality of the force.

But it is his announced support for Johns Hopkins University’s proposal to create its own sworn police force that may prove the heaviest lift. Mr. Miller cited Hopkins alumnus and mega-donor Michael Bloomberg’s support for the idea, but neither the Senate president nor the former New York mayor has much clout with the constituencies who blocked legislation to enable a Hopkins police force last year. The problem then was Hopkins’ failure to build community support — really, even to tell anyone about it — before a bill was rolling down the tracks in Annapolis. Coupled with the historic distrust many in Baltimore have for Hopkins as an institution and the current distrust of policing in the city, and you had a recipe for suspicion and even outrage. When it became clear that the university didn’t have the votes in the Baltimore delegation, Hopkins pulled the bill and promised to engage in direct dialogue with the community before trying again.

We got a peek at that process this month when Hopkins President Ronald Daniels went door-to-door in East Baltimore and attended a community forum to discuss the police proposal and other issues related to public safety, one of a series of events the university held this fall with stakeholders on and off campus. Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (better known as BUILD) facilitated this month’s exchanges, which revealed mixed feelings among residents about the idea. People who live in the neighborhoods around Hopkins’ campuses are just as concerned about crime as university officials are, but significant wariness to the police idea remains. Specifically, community members said they worry that the Hopkins police would merely push crime outside of their patrol boundaries, that it could foster division and racial profiling, and that it could suffer the same deficiencies in terms of constitutional policing that the Baltimore Police Department has over the years.

Those are surmountable obstacles, but Hopkins needs to address them in transparent, accountable ways. Theoretically, the creation of a Hopkins police force would free up BPD resources, which could then be re-focused on areas outside the university’s patrol zone, but for that to be effective, Hopkins and the BPD would need very clear protocols for cooperation and information sharing. Concerns about racial profiling can be alleviated through the recruitment of a diverse police force, robust training on implicit bias, publication of data related to race and police actions and clear policies related to discriminatory policing coupled with vigorous enforcement. And convincing residents that the force will adhere to constitutional practices requires all that and strong oversight roles for community members in officer discipline and oversight of the department’s policies and practices.

Allowing Hopkins to have a sworn, armed police force is a reasonable response to security concerns on and around campus. Public universities across Maryland (including three in Baltimore City) have their own sworn police forces, and they are common at private universities in other states. At a time when the BPD is struggling to fill patrol shifts, the offer by a private institution to fund additional officers on the streets is certainly appealing, as is the prospect of creating a force that could serve as a model for what we want the BPD to be post-reform.

Hopkins appears to have reversed some of the damage from its bungled push for a police force during the last General Assembly session, but even with Senator Miller’s support, this is far from a done deal. Hopkins is expected to release a report as early as this week detailing its conversations with stakeholders, the options it considered and the parameters for what remains its preference — the creation of a sworn police force. That represents a major improvement over where things stood a year ago, but the university would be wise to engage in a bit more back-and-forth with the community before translating the report into proposed legislation. During the last few months, the university has heard from the community on and off campus; now it needs to prove that it listened.

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