Remember when a new academy to train Baltimore police officers was supposed to be established at Coppin State University?
That was the big plan in 2015 when the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution sponsored by then council member and now state delegate Nick Mosby to seriously explore the idea. The legislation, passed not long after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody near the university, called for an analysis of what it would cost to bring all or part of the department’s training to the university. The proposal was to relocate it to the school’s Bishop L. Robinson Sr. Justice Institute, named after the city’s first black police commissioner.
The decision by the Board of Estimates recently to instead choose the University of Baltimore as the next home for the academy is a missed opportunity to invest in the West Side and boost the academic offerings of one of the very historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, that a federal judge has already said the state has systematically discriminated against.
A years long lawsuit, still in limbo, criticized the state for adding programs to historically white universities at the expense of HBCUs, which one could conclude is also happening now. Same old story at play again. This would have been a perfectly good opportunity for Coppin to add new programs, like a judge has recommended as part of the solution. Further complicating matters, the move comes at a time of some Coppin-UB tension related to a proposal by UB President and former mayor Kurt Schmoke to create a city university system that would adopt a new governance structure involving the University of Baltimore, Coppin and Baltimore City Community College. Some Coppin boosters see that as an attempt to diminish their institution.
The City Council laid out many good reasons in 2015 to locate the academy at Coppin, and they remain valid. Cadets could work on community policing in the heart of a neighborhood where distrust of police is high. The university has a strong criminal justice program and could tap students on campus as potential recruits. Coppin is near many high schools, including Frederick Douglas High School, where it could build alliances and groom students into future officers. It would be an opportunity to pay attention to a neighborhood that hasn’t seen the investment opportunities of other parts of the city.
We’re not sure what happened in the last four years that University of Baltimore suddenly became the top choice and Coppin barely an afterthought — and only that because some state and city lawmakers who represent the district came forward at the Board of Estimates meeting to oppose the move. There was zero transparency to the public on how the decision came about, despite the fact that city taxpayers will pay the $2.5 million to renovate UB buildings and $7.2 million in rent over the next five years, as well as $200,000 for parking.
Leadership changes since the original proposal, including Mr. Mosby moving to state office, could have also come to play. The board approved the move to UB when Coppin is in leadership limbo with an interim president at the helm.
The sudden rush to move the facility is being attributed to the city’s consent decree with the federal government to remedy unconstitutional policing practices, which has called for an immediate upgrade the department’s training. But that doesn’t explain how the city dropped the ball on the Coppin plan for the last four years, and it doesn’t excuse the lack of public consideration of alternatives to the UB plan.
Councilman Bill Henry, who is running for comptroller, raised those very points in a statement released a day after the Board of Estimates vote. Mr. Henry said that as comptroller he would have taken on the feasibility study at Coppin and most importantly, provided that analysis to the public.
Because right now, we don’t really know that the University of Baltimore is the best option. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said that Coppin doesn’t have the necessary facilities, but others have noted there is classroom space available in several buildings. And we know the university has better athletic facilities and more outdoor space where training can occur. Plus, couldn’t space renovated as it will need to be at UB?
The Board of Estimates said that UB should use Coppin faculty to help teach classes. That’s well and good, if it actually happens, but it’s no substitute for the benefits of having the academy on Coppin’s campus.
In the end, the city was not held accountable for its decision. Mr. Henry has also said that as comptroller, he would have withheld his approval of the lease until city officials explained why other locations were rejected.