Not everyone was happy with the idea of Johns Hopkins University starting its own private police force to address a spike in crime. Those against the proposal refused to back down even after the General Assembly approved plans for armed officers to protect the university’s Homewood academic campus, the medical campus in East Baltimore and the Peabody Institute conservatory in Mount Vernon. During a five week standoff, student and community activists shut down the main administration building, Garland Hall, in protest. The standoff ended only after university officials sent in Baltimore police to arrest and forcibly remove seven people.
The protesters may not have gotten their way, but that doesn’t mean their work and that of other critics is over — far from it. The legislation that Hopkins is bound by included many opportunities for the public to hold the university accountable, both as it builds a force, and also once the department is in existence. Now, it’s up to residents to be a proactive part of the process.
We have supported the university’s desire for its own police force, but with certain protections that address legitimate concerns made by the public about the potential for unlawful tactics. Bad behavior by corrupt cops both in Baltimore and around the country have put citizens on alert about aggressive and unfair policing, especially against African Americans and other minorities. Unfortunately, Hopkins’ fraught relationship with the community over the years doesn’t help build goodwill and trust.
As Hopkins begins the process of getting the new force off the ground, they should be put under the microscope. Hopkins officials know the scrutiny is coming and have vowed to promote transparency and accountability. They have already adopted a checks and balances system stronger than that of the Baltimore Police Department.
Last month, Hopkins put out a call for applications for its police accountability board, an entity created to help quell some of the criticism. People have until Nov. 20 to apply to the board, which will comprise five community members who aren’t affiliated with the university, including at least one from each of the three areas the force will patrol. Ten members will come from Hopkins’ campuses and include students and at least one member of the Johns Hopkins Black Faculty and Staff Association. This board, something that doesn’t exist in the Baltimore police department, will have a say in police policies, training and metrics. Hopkins says it wants the board to be the voice of the community, holding public meetings and bringing concerns and recommendations back to leadership.
Hopkins will have the final say on who is chosen. But a nominating committee will submit a list of recommended candidates to university officials, and the Maryland Senate will confirm those members. Anybody who wants a chance for a voice in the process ought to apply. Or simply pay attention to the process. See something hinky? Call Hopkins or your state senator.
Other ways to get involved will open up in the near future. For one, residents with the proper background can apply to become officers themselves. Or they can try to get one of the civilian spots on trial boards that will be created to review discipline cases against officers. In other words, the police won’t police themselves, a tactic that makes departments more vulnerable to corruption. Hopkins also still needs the buy in of the city. It will began hammering out a memorandum of understanding after it hires a new head of security — somebody we hope has a strong community policing background. (The previous person to hold the position, Melissa Hyatt, is now the chief of police in Baltimore County.) Opportunities for public input as it seeks Baltimore’s approval will be bountiful, Hopkins has pledged.
It’s certainly not time for those still skeptical of Hopkins’ plan to stand down just because the university received state approval. In fact, they should be more vocal than ever as the nuts and bolts of a future department are worked out. An armed force is coming, but what that department looks like can and should be shaped with input from the community.
If it doesn’t, people are entitled to practice their First Amendment right: Protest is still a vital and important way of influencing change. But first let’s give Hopkins the benefit of the doubt to see if they truly have the community’s needs in mind. Given all the attention the force has been given, we think it will be hard not to follow through.