The last significant announcement from Johns Hopkins University about its controversial plan to create a private police force came in June of 2020, when officials said they were taking a “pause” from implementation for “at least the next two years” amid “renewed questions and broad concerns about policing in America” and community “calls to reconsider [their] decision to create a university police department.”
It was clearly a reaction to nationwide concerns about police brutality, coming shortly after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in the middle of a “defund” the police campaign, and layered on top of long-standing worries about unconstitutional policing and other misconduct in Baltimore. The proposal also had faced significant opposition from community groups and students alike.
But the plan was back in the news this week, halfway through the two-year-minimum pause, with the announcement that Branville Bard Jr., 50, the police commissioner for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, had been hired as Hopkins’ vice president for public safety. Among his duties will be developing and implementing the school’s police department, though his chief role will be to oversee security as a whole at Hopkins institutions, including roughly 1,300 security officers — 13 times the number of police officers expected on the force. Still, the hiring came as a surprise to some who saw it as a signal that the institution was restarting implementation before it finished “rethinking the appropriate boundaries and responsibilities of policing,” as Hopkins leadership promised last year.
Hopkins officials say that isn’t the case, but questions about its commitment and how much “rethinking” has occurred to date are fair. We certainly hope this doesn’t signal a practical end to the pause, if not an actual end, or to any evaluation of best practices that Hopkins pledged. And we would expect Mr. Bard to spend the second year of the pause — his first year on the job — studying the issues.
Hopkins is still seen in some quarters as an institution of white privilege seeking to assert its dominance over low-income communities of color. And there are still many Baltimoreans who have a broader distrust of police, whether employed by Hopkins or by the city of Baltimore or the state of Maryland. There are good reasons for this based on bad experiences, particularly in a city where the police department is currently operated under a federally monitored consent decree, financial settlements are still being made to individuals unfairly harmed by officers, and the legacy of both Freddie Gray and the Gun Trace Task Force is fresh in the minds of many.
That must be balanced with the very real fears of Johns Hopkins parents who are sending their sons and daughters off to school in a city where gun violence is among the worst in the nation, and employees, who have legitimate concerns about their safety on and off school property. This is the reality of life in Baltimore where homicides are likely to top 300 again this year.
And so, we would like to make this point: Let’s continue to talk. Let’s have a respectful conversation about how — and whether — this project should move forward under the terms initially envisioned when the Maryland General Assembly granted Hopkins the authority to create its own police force in 2019. Let’s not let that conversation descend into an act of public relations or impassioned inflammation, but one that seeks solutions and compromise and true police reform.
Make no mistake, we want to see the region’s largest private employer prosper and for Baltimore to prosper with it. And we want to hear more from Mr. Bard, who does not begin his assignment until the end of August. What are his plans? What is his philosophy? How does he perceive these challenging circumstances? In a brief phone conversation Wednesday, the married father of three, who is African American, said his goal was to listen, to learn and to create the “ideal police department” that is “fully accountable to the public.” His track record on constitutional policing is promising. He published a dissertation on racial profiling and how to eradicate it, and was in the process of implementing a system to track officer interactions with residents based on race. He’s also familiar with the other side of the justice system as his brother Kirk, just one year younger, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in Pennsylvania.
We are not inclined to give Hopkins a blank check on civil rights, policing, their obligations to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised or anything else. But we are also not willing to discount the institution’s safety needs. We believe there is a path forward that honors each of those responsibilities — and the many police officers who do their job right.
During Tuesday’s congressional hearing on the Jan. 6 attack, we witnessed the emotional testimony of officers who defended the U.S. Capitol that day. Their efforts to serve and protect are instructive, too. They are not the enemy. They are believers in democracy and the rule of law. Surely, it’s not impossible to envision such honorable people protecting certain corners of Baltimore under the guidance of a man with 29 years of police experience and deep concerns about racial bias. With the right checks and balances, of course. Now, let’s talk about it some more.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.