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Hopkins police plan raises an army of issues

Two Johns Hopkins institutions, both the hospital and the university, are seeking changes in the laws that govern the state of Maryland in order to create Hopkins’ own police department (“Johns Hopkins University pushing bill to create its own police force in Baltimore,” March 5). If approved, the private institution that benefits from non-profit status, thus is exempt from paying property tax for its plethora of real estate holdings, will be a policing arm of the state. As a good neighbor, Hopkins should have reached out to community associations and residents to discuss this proposal. Instead, many are greeting it with suspicion or simply rejecting it both on principle and practice.

Giving policing powers to yet another entity in a majority black city with known practices of racial disparities in law enforcement requires the utmost scrutiny. In this proposal, there seems to be none. Zero. There’s the letter that went to campus family and the legislation. Even media coverage has been anemic. The questions are plentiful and wide ranging:

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• Who would train Hopkins police? The Baltimore Police Department’s training of cadets has been called deficient.

• Who would they arrest besides the “black male acting suspiciously?”

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• What geographic boundaries would they have for policing?

• Would officers be protected by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights?

• Would officers be afforded collective bargaining rights with a local or a new Fraternal Order of Police chapter?

• How accessible would information and access to data be for the public and media?

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• How private would business development contracts be to scrutinize potential conflicts of interest?

• Would oversight and responses to complaints be conducted by the larger community and be civilian led?

To be clear, both the hospital and university already have a highly visible security apparatus with closed circuit televisions, bike and foot patrols and campus transit vehicles just to name a few. As it stands, Hopkins' security provides exemplary safety measures to combat the crimes reported on campus as well as neighboring areas to the school, hospital and associated residential neighborhoods. For suspected felonies, its personnel already has policing powers on campus.

Citizens are skeptical and left wondering why such a move has been so jubilantly buoyed by Mayor Catherine Pugh. Why have Hopkins and the Baltimore delegation to Annapolis not engaged oversight agencies, community and business leaders, or any and all stakeholders before seeking to award a dramatic shift — a new policing arm to a private entity? It's not as if the community is disinterested. To the contrary, many are focused and engaged in the process of reforming the Baltimore City Police Department.

Also questionable is whether any such agreement would first have to gain court approval since the city and the department are under a consent decree. Does Hopkins merely yell jump and Baltimore simply respond with “how high?” It appears so. Bill sponsors Sen. Joan Carter Conway (SB 1241) and Del. Cheryl Glenn (HB 1803) have not reached out to their constituents at all before bringing this matter to the State House floor. It's inexcusable that public input was not sought prior to attaching their sponsorship to the legislation. And inexplicable that they would think that after the horrific crimes cops told on the stand as part of the Gun Trace Task Force along with the disparaging U.S. Department of Justice report, that any elected official would move forward without community engagement and input.

Hopkins, through its public safety office, publishes federally-mandated reports that include campus thefts, car break ins, underage drinking, harassment, and sexual assault that are common to institutions of higher education. It’s extremely unclear how and why the entire state of Maryland must yield to award Hopkins policing powers akin to being its own regulated militia. In its pleading for this never-before-granted statute change, Hopkins argues that the move would be a cost savings for the city. This suggestion is not only absurd, it is an abject slap in the face for their lack of outreach as each year the city struggles with budget shortfalls, namely when it comes to schools.

Nothing prevents Hopkins from contributing to the city's general fund to assist departments perpetually underfunded due to budget constraints — namely education, recreation, roads, public lighting, trash and recycling programs. But perhaps, I'm cynical because of the historical abuses Johns Hopkins, the city's largest employer, has inflicted upon residents. I'd be willing to see the study they commissioned to show exactly how much the city would save if they were to train officers to chase, detain, interrogate, arrest and transport residents to Central Booking.

Clearly, Hopkins is not seeking a change in state law in order to save Baltimore money. It's also obvious that they aren't itching to get into the private policing business. This would be a substantial deviation from how they currently conduct private security. Far more likely, it’s driven by their own financial needs. Having Baltimore persistently at the top of rankings for the most violent or dangerous city simply cannot be good business for Hopkins. Parents are understandably concerned about sending their teenagers and young adults to such an environment. Also, convincing reticent prospective new hires might involve dangling a bump in salary to overcome apprehension.

To be a good neighbor, Hopkins could invest more in the public school system that would widen the pool of qualified applicants from which they could choose. They would save on relocation costs and likely reduce crime in the process. In short, awarding private entities a yet untested area of policing powers is a matter that state legislators should consider soberly and carefully.

Keesha Ha, Baltimore

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