I have made it a rule to not publicly discuss politics or race relations. My research tells a story, however, of the harms of racism and discrimination as well as the impact of toxic environments on healthy growth and development.
I grew up in Baltimore, went to Baltimore City Public Schools and then spent eight years at Johns Hopkins earning my bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. As an African American male growing up in Baltimore, I experienced countless encounters with Baltimore City police, mostly unpleasant experiences. Given these experiences, I would be remiss if I did not join the conversation regarding the establishment of a private, armed police force at Johns Hopkins.
I understand the supporters and the opposition. Johns Hopkins has an obligation to keep its students safe; this is necessary to continue to recruit and retain the best and the brightest students. I also understand the argument of students who occupied Garland Hall, black and brown students as well as community members who will deal with the unintended consequences associated with the establishment of a new police force.
Over five decades of research consistently shows that African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately policed and subsequently over-represented in arrests, and at increased risk to fall victim to deadly use of force by law enforcement. During my junior year at JHU, I worked on a research project that assessed the built and social characteristics of residential neighborhoods in Baltimore City. The goal of this research was to develop interventions and inform policies to reduce adolescent exposure to violence, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
I was completing an assessment in the early afternoon in a neighborhood directly adjacent to JHU’s Homewood campus, the neighborhood where I was a college student. After being on that block for two minutes, police arrived and questioned why I was in the neighborhood. In a city that is predominately African American, the city that raised me, the city where I had been volunteering since I was 10 — I had to justify my presence. The police officers said a resident called 911 reporting a suspicious person in the neighborhood. The officers continued to question me until I showed them my Hopkins’ student identification card, because, of course, my Maryland driver’s license was not sufficient. I was humiliated and furious afterward. I sent a letter to the president of JHU, the mayor and the police commissioner.
It turns out that the police responded to a non-urgent call in less than six minutes for a black male walking on the sidewalk of a predominantly white neighborhood directly adjacent to his college campus. Would the response time be the same if someone had called from Park Heights or Sandtown-Winchester? This was not my first encounter with BPD, and it was not my last. Although I do not have an arrest record, not even points on my license, I have had law enforcement throughout Maryland draw their weapons as they approached me. I have been stopped and questioned about where I’m going or why I’m in a community where I don’t resemble the average resident.
When community members and students at JHU say black and brown students will be the victims of unnecessary, unwanted and unfair policing, I believe them, and I stand with them. There are decades of research, in addition to their personal experiences, to support these statements. The same implicit bias that had a resident call 911 because they saw me walking on a public sidewalk is the same implicit bias that results in the death of countless black and brown Americans due to deadly force by law enforcement. This is the same implicit bias that hinders strides to create a diverse physician workforce.
I pray that JHU is responsible in the establishment of this new police force, that there is community and student oversight, and that black and brown students do not have additional threats to their safety and well-being on their own campus from an effort proposed to protect them.
Dr. Adam J. Milam (Amilam3@gmail.com) is a Baltimore native.