The decision to “pause” for at least two years a controversial plan to implement an armed police force at Johns Hopkins University, amid widespread public demands for law enforcement reform, may very well be of no great immediate consequence to either Hopkins or Baltimore.
The department hadn’t been set up yet, and it would have employed no more than 100 people, only a quarter of whom must be city residents. And while parents of potential students might raise concerns about sending their kids to a city notorious for its murder rate, many among the staff and students already here have been pushing back on the proposal for as long as the university has been posing it. Some went so far as to stage a month-long sit in last year that resulted in the arrest of four students and three community members.
But the fact that the decision comes on the heels of two years of intensive — and expensive — lobbying to authorize such a force despite the resistance suggests that safety was never a key consideration behind the plan. This was a public relations move at its core.
If it were about student security, Hopkins would be moving forward, even as protesters around the country call for “defunding” the police. As Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels told the legislature last year: “What we all know has not changed are the unacceptably high levels of criminal violence impacting every part of the city and subverting its possibilities.” Multiple studies show that more police on the streets — as long as they’re the so-called “good apple cops” — leads to less crime.
If it were about civil rights, Hopkins would pull the plug completely, recognizing that “the renewed questions and broad concerns about policing in America [today] and the calls to reconsider [the] decision to create a university police department” — as Mr. Daniels wrote in a letter to faculty, students, staff and residents last week (along with Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty; and Kevin W. Sowers, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System) — will not be resolved in the near term.
And if it’s truly because, as the Hopkins leaders claim, they “want Johns Hopkins to be part of the conversation about what is possible for our city and country in rethinking the appropriate boundaries and responsibilities of policing,” it’s shameful that it took a Minnesota police brutality case to open their eyes, when the death of Freddie Gray — and the public outcry and reform efforts that followed — took place right here in their backyard.
Hopkins officials made a very big deal last year about the public conversations they’d been having and the accountability measures they planned to put in place based on grave concerns expressed by communities both inside and outside the campus. They were already taught the lessons — right here in Baltimore — that the rest of the country is just beginning to grasp in the wake of the cold killing captured on camera of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. The concerns of Freddie Gray’s yesterday are the same as George Floyd’s today: Law enforcement disproportionately targets people of color, putting their safety and simple quality of life in jeopardy.
The question regarding Hopkins now, is whether shelving the police department plan for a time — without taking the bolder step of abandoning it — will buy officials enough good will with their critics to make up for all the capital they’ve lost, both in terms of cash layout and politics. Hopkins spent $581,000 heavily lobbying lawmakers to back an armed force in the face of constitutional concerns, winning overwhelming approval with votes from 136 of them. And now, the university has left them, essentially, twisting in the wind. We expect at least some of those legislators were already miffed with Hopkins over the pace it had set for implementation. Despite gaining approval last year, the only apparent step taken to create the police force was the assembly of an accountability board, which met for the first time just this month.
“Slow” was actually the 2019 buzzword. Hopkins had initially proposed the police force idea in 2018, but amid backlash, they pumped the breaks. “At your urging, we slowed down,” President Daniels told lawmakers last winter. “To allow for more in-depth research, to listen to the community — our neighbors, our elected leaders, and our faculty, students and staff — and to develop a proposal that incorporates the feedback we received. The legislation before you now reflects that comprehensive effort — months of exploration, study and discussion. It is now the most rigorous, accountable, and transparent statutory mandate for any police department in the state and any university police department in the country.”
What more what they’re going to do or discuss during the 2020 “pause” is unclear.
We’ll give them credit for acknowledging the wider shift in public sentiment. Of course, the decision was likely made somewhat easier by the economic conditions created by the pandemic. As coronavirus shut down America, Hopkins had to refund the cost of room and board to families and spend more to move learning online, as its endowment sank along with revenue prospects for the future. Hopkins now predicts net losses of $100 million for this fiscal year and up to $375 million for the 2021 fiscal year, when they had been expecting an $80 million positive margin. While the university maintained that it could “optimize resources” to cover the costs of creating a university-based police department, security eats up a big chunk of their budget — roughly $58 million in FY 2019 — and they’ll likely be looking to cut, not expand, in that area, along with many others.
But it’s disappointing that this is so obviously an optics move — and a half-hearted one at that — particularly when it involves such critical areas as personal safety and well-being. To be fair, optics has been a big factor behind much of the opposition to a Hopkins force, as well. Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the University of Baltimore all have their own police departments. It’s only Johns Hopkins, which has a history of being viewed as elitist and unconcerned with the black community, that’s caused a public outcry. While Hopkins has made great efforts in recent years to invest in and uplift Baltimore, there is much more work to be done to gain residents’ trust.
On this issue, Hopkins needs to get its priorities straight, make a decision and accept the consequences. Dragging the community along on some kind of two-year (at a minimum) study group serves only to send one of two likely messages: Either the school still doesn’t have a supportable point of view on a topic so big, that people have taken to the streets by the thousands to debate it, or officials are betting this all blows over by 2022. We really hope it’s not the latter, because that suggests all the conversations had so far haven’t made much of an impact — and those proposed in the future might also amount to just talk.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.