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Kurt Schmoke: 'perplexed' by concerns over Johns Hopkins police force

Baltimore is not the only American city faced with the challenge of reducing violent crime. But those of us who care deeply about this great city are confronted with an urgent need for action to address this problem head-on. This is an all hands on deck moment.

There are a number of strong proposals addressing this pending in Annapolis this session — among them the offer from Johns Hopkins to replace its current off-duty Baltimore Police contingent with its own small university police department. If we’re serious about improving our city’s public safety, we should allow Johns Hopkins to establish this police department while also directing additional funds to community development and youth engagement programs in the city.

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The concept of a university police department focused on serving the needs of its students, employees and neighbors is hardly new. Most public and many private universities in the country — especially those located in urban areas — have dedicated university police departments. I have spent much of my career in higher education, as a dean at Howard University School of Law and as the current president of the University of Baltimore. And I served for many years as a trustee of Yale University. In all three of these positions, I have had an oversight role for the universities’ police departments.

Johns Hopkins is offering to put in statute accountability measures for its proposed police force that go far beyond what the Baltimore police are bound by.

It is due to this first-hand experience that I confess I am perplexed by the current criticisms and skepticism facing Johns Hopkins’ proposal. Time and again, university police departments have proven to be a boon for communities and local law enforcement efforts. Rather than setting up a slippery slope for other private institutions and businesses to establish their own security operations, university police departments shoulder the burden of patrolling campus areas at no cost to taxpayers, allowing municipal police to focus their efforts on other areas of the city that require the most support and investment.

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On campus, universities face different law enforcement challenges, particularly related to sexual assault, substance abuse and mental health issues. They serve a broad population, including visitors, and typically are responsible for a complex set of buildings and other facilities that requires familiarity beyond that of any city police. And, tragically, they have too often been the targets of mass shooters, a scourge that our country continues to grapple with on a near-daily basis.

The FBI reported 15 mass shooter incidents on college campuses between 2000 and 2017, with 70 people killed and 73 injured. In 2015 alone, 25 people were shot and killed at or very near university campuses, including 10 stemming from the incident at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, which does not have a police department. The specter of an active shooter on campus is a nightmare that no college or university can face with complacency.

It might seem strange to question Hopkins wanting an armed police force, but not given local history and Justice Department findings.

At the University of Baltimore, our police department is an invaluable resource not only for our university community but also for our neighbors. Our police interface with our other security staff and cooperate in ways they couldn’t if they weren’t part of the same organization. For example, we often assign the same officers to specific buildings or patrol areas so they can build relationships with students, employees and community members and develop an in-depth knowledge of the area. This best practice enables our officers to notice when something seems off or unusual, intervene to prevent crime from happening in the first place, respond to incidents quickly and appropriately, and help those in distress.

We see policing as a partnership with the campus community, the city of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department. Together, this focus on service, partnership and solutions helps us foster a safe and secure environment for our campus and our neighbors. I strongly believe a JHU police department would offer the same.

The faculty members wrote that a police force employed by the university would be “undemocratic” and “antagonistic” with Baltimore’s nonwhite population.

Baltimore’s crime situation has stretched the city budget and the staffing needs of the BPD, a department that faces significant challenges already. From my own time as mayor, I know the impact other institutions stepping up and playing their part can have on the city’s resources. Every dollar and every officer the BPD can redirect because Johns Hopkins has its own police department will have an impact — not only on our city’s ability to fight crime and improve public safety, but also to meet its other important obligations.

I urge our elected leaders to support the comprehensive legislation currently being considered in Annapolis that gives Hopkins the tools it needs to help us all create a safer and more prosperous city.

Kurt L. Schmoke serves as president of the University of Baltimore and is a former mayor of the City of Baltimore. His email is president@ubalt.edu.

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