Johns Hopkins University recently announced a plan to create a private police force. While the details for such a plan are still being developed, I am immediately reminded by the death of Stephon Clark why such a force may cause more harm than good. Clark, a 22-year old unarmed black man from Sacramento, Cal., was recently killed by police in his own back yard. Police were responding to a call that someone broke multiple car windows with a crowbar and ran behind the nearby houses. A police helicopter directed the police on foot into the back yard of Clark’s home. Police confronted Clark and told him to show his hands. Clark complied, an officer yelled “gun,” and the police collectively fired 20 shots at him until he fell to his death. Only later did the police discover that Clark was in his own home and that the object that at least one officer said was a gun was merely a cell phone. No crow bar or weapon was discovered.
The Sacramento police said the issue was a “tragedy all around,” but the community that seems to be forever on the receiving end of these countless tragedies asks, “How could such an event be avoided?” Aside from the obvious issues of racism, implicit bias, over-policing, fear, arrogance and the dehumanization of black men, simply put, too many guns killed Clark.
Guns in the hands of a police force trained and empowered to use them upon fear.
Students across the nation gathered in Washington, D.C., this past weekend to get guns off of the streets and out of the hands of those who endanger them. Their solution is simply fewer guns because they know that no amount of counseling and sensitivity training will eliminate the impulses of flawed beings with deadly tools.
We know from experience that guns produce hubris, and hubris creates tragedies. If Hopkins creates a private police force — thereby exchanging a force exclusively made up of unarmed security guards for one that includes sworn officers with guns — we can predict that tragedies will follow just as easily as we can predict the victims will be primarily black.
Stephon Clark, and too many others to name, have shown us that police can and will kill a black person with impunity. The only requirement is that the killing be followed by a statement from police that they feared for their lives. A likely true statement. Omitted from the statement is when their fear emerged. Did they wake up with their fear? Did they lie down with it? From the rate of innocent black killings, and the Department of Justice Report on the Baltimore Police Department, it seems police have been fearing black people for quite some time. It’s almost understandable. In a world where black men are commonly portrayed as villains, fear is natural and predictable.
Police will surely fear me. It will begin with my dark skin and increase with of my 6-foot, 250-pound frame. If the Hopkins plan comes to fruition, police could excusably kill me for answering a text while walking from my own campus. Afterward, I’ll be labeled a tragedy while they look for reasons to show I contributed to becoming a victim. It is my goal to one day become a professor, but this is not a lesson I long to teach. I have no desire to be collateral damage to an occupation that has yet to learn that every fear isn’t legitimate.
I came to Hopkins to learn and to engage with a community of learners and educators who value my presence. With this latest initiative, I find myself along with others in the black Hopkins community wondering if our safety and emotional wellbeing is less important than the perception of others. The public relations problem caused by the violence within Baltimore City can only be assuaged in one way that is both moral and profitable. Hopkins must increase its investment in Baltimore, particularly in ways that will help reduce the crime rate overall. Creating an iron-clad police force that can do what security guards cannot will be expensive and undoubtedly an acute danger for people like me — black people.
Darriel Harris is a third-year Ph.D. student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.