In key ways, Hopkins police would be more accountable than Baltimore police

Students Against Private Police continues its efforts to oppose the creation of a Johns Hopkins University private police force. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Some of the people who object to Johns Hopkins University’s proposal to create its own armed, sworn police force seem really to be objecting to the idea of police in general. Born of anger at the abuses bad cops and bad criminal justice policies have perpetrated on citizens — and most particularly against African Americans and other minorities — this line of thinking holds that more police would threaten the community, not protect it. Data from multiple studies don’t support that notion. On the contrary, more police on the streets correlates strongly with lower crime, whereas the negative outcomes critics are worried about — harassment, intimidation, over-incarceration and excessive use of force — are functions of bad policy, bad training and bad management, not the number of cops. Adherents to the idea that an increase in the police presence is inherently harmful are vocal, but after years of runaway violence, we believe most Baltimoreans want police in their neighborhoods, just a better, more constitutional version of them than we’ve gotten from the Baltimore police in recent years.

The question is whether the proposal Hopkins has made would result in an effective but enlightened version of policing or whether it would multiply the worst elements of law enforcement we have seen from the Baltimore police. There are no guarantees, of course, but in key respects, the legislation Hopkins is seeking would make its force substantially more accountable than the Baltimore Police Department.

  • Under this proposal, Hopkins police would be legally required to wear and use body cameras. Baltimore police’s body camera program is a matter of policy that can be abandoned at any time.
  • Hopkins would be required to include civilians on trial boards for cases of possible discipline against officers. Baltimore has only recently agreed to civilians on trial boards, and only at the forbearance of the police union, which agreed to the provision as a matter of the most recent contract negotiations. There is no guarantee that it will do so again.
  • In addition to making its police subject to Baltimore’s existing Civilian Review Board, Hopkins would be required to establish a separate accountability board comprised of students, faculty, staff and residents of neighborhoods adjacent to the Homewood, Peabody and East Baltimore campuses. The board would have the power to review police policies, training and metrics and to recommend changes, and it would be required to hold public hearings to get input on the department’s performance. No such body exists for the Baltimore police. The City Council fulfills some of those functions, but since the BPD is technically a state agency, it has no direct oversight authority. The city’s General Assembly delegation can play that role, but it has historically not done so in any systematic way.
  • A Hopkins police force could only exist under the proposed law if the Baltimore City administration signs off on a memorandum of understanding between the university and the police department. Thus, the terms by which it would be established and its continued existence would be subject to oversight by the city government. Last year, a city legislator floated the idea of abolishing and re-establishing the BPD; with the Hopkins police force, this or a future mayor could actually do it.
  • The proposed legislation to authorize the Hopkins police requires it to adopt community-oriented policing strategies. The zero-tolerance tactics the BPD used in years past would actually be illegal.
  • The bill does not require Hopkins police to be city residents, but it does call on the university to “promote recruiting and hiring diverse candidates, including local hiring and residency initiatives.” Hopkins’ track record on local hiring is substantially better than BPD’s. Three years ago, Hopkins set a goal to hire at least 40 percent of workers in certain job categories from lower-income ZIP codes in Baltimore City. It has exceeded that target in each year, adding up to 1,017 new hires. Of the last recruit class to graduate from Baltimore’s police academy, three out of 26 (less than 12 percent) live in the city.

Hopkins officials clearly understand and embrace the reality that a police department established in 2019 will be subjected to a far greater degree of scrutiny than existed in the past. If city lawmakers have further ideas to make sure a Hopkins police force is fully accountable to the public on campus and off, we’re eager to hear them. But we believe this legislation provides a strong basis for establishing the kind of police Baltimoreans want to see more of.