The case for an independent police force at Johns Hopkins

Johns Hopkins officials recently announced plans to hold a series of community forums through the end of the year in an effort to renew its push to establish an independent police department to protect the university and medical campuses and surrounding areas of Baltimore. A prior attempt this year failed to gain legislator approval because of resistance from the community and the Baltimore City Council.

If common sense had anything to do with this, community and council members would embrace the proposal. If they need convincing, I suggest that they take the two-hour drive up I-95 to Philadelphia to study the impact of the University of Pennsylvania Police Department (UPPD).

Both Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania are private institutions with facilities located in challenging urban neighborhoods. The UPPD, founded in 1973, has about 120 sworn officers, including 13 detectives; it is a fully-accredited law enforcement agency committed to community-oriented policing. The university’s vice president for public safety is the department’s superintendent, and she is a civilian. The footprint of the University of Pennsylvania is considerably larger than Hopkins’ and the “Penn patrol zone” policed by the UPPD is roughly 4 square miles.

For 12 consecutive years, Security Magazine has ranked the UPPD the best program in the nation in the “Education (University)” category. Ask Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, members of the Philadelphia city council and Penn’s neighbors if Philadelphia would be better off without the UPPD.

There is no reason that Johns Hopkins could not emulate the success of the University of Pennsylvania in standing up a police department that is an asset to the city. No reason, that is, other than the peculiar world of Baltimore politics in which common sense often is in short supply.

I don’t blame community members for their general suspicion of police officers, given their experiences with the Baltimore Police Department and the city’s well-documented history of structural racism. Many members of the community embrace an ideology in which the city’s criminals are seen primarily as victims of the poverty and family disintegration resulting from structural racism. These citizens view arrests and prosecution as treating the symptoms rather than the disease and are skeptical of any law enforcement solutions to Baltimore’s crime problem.

I understand. But keep in mind that the effects of structural racism are going to take a long time to fix. Letting the city bleed to death in the meantime helps no one. Sometimes you have to manage the symptoms before you can cure the disease. Effective law enforcement is needed right now to make sure that the city survives until the longer-term goals of racial and economic equity can be achieved.

Moreover, the principal goal of a campus police department is not to arrest people, but to deter crime. Ask ordinary residents of Baltimore neighborhoods now under siege if they’d welcome a larger police presence.

Members of the City Council claimed that they were left out of the loop in crafting the initial proposal for a Hopkins police department. It is fine to want to be in the loop. It is not fine if the council tries to hold the proposal hostage until concessions of political value to members of the council are extracted — something that the council is prone to do.

If the proposal is revived and the council helps defeat it, the council would accomplish two things.

First, it would weaken the ability of the city’s largest private employer to protect the safety of its students, staff, patients and neighbors. The destinies of Hopkins and Baltimore are intertwined. With about 45,000 employees, Hopkins is a bulwark against inner-city poverty becoming even worse.

Second, it would feed the narrative that the council is a poor steward of the city’s resources. Hopkins wants to assume the financial burden of policing its campuses and nearby areas of the city. Staring a gift horse in the mouth is the last image that the council wants to convey to a governor and General Assembly already wary of committing more money to the cash-strapped city.

I hope that Johns Hopkins goes back to the legislature next year to seek approval of its proposal to establish its own police department. If so, I hope that the Baltimore City Council is kept in the loop, restrains its worst political impulses and does what it can to make the proposal succeed. It’s a chance to help both the university and the city.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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