The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would allow the private Johns Hopkins University to create an armed police force, after opponents spent more than an hour attempting to amend the measure.
The bill would permit Hopkins to have 100 officers to patrol its academic campus in Baltimore’s Homewood neighborhood, the Peabody Institute in Mount Vernon and the hospital campus in East Baltimore.
The bill moves to a final vote in the Senate as early as Thursday. A companion bill in the House of Delegates has been endorsed by Baltimore’s delegates and is awaiting further votes.
Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, said she’s concerned the legislation would open the door to privatizing police forces in Maryland. Policing, she said, is an inherently public institution.
“This is setting us down the path of privatizing policing and saying that if you want to be safe, you pay more than your taxes, you establish your own police force, you protect your own,” said Washington, urging her fellow senators to vote to “keep policing public.”
Washington and Sen. Jill P. Carter, also a Baltimore Democrat, proposed nine amendments to the bill. Their colleagues shot them all down on voice votes.
Maryland law allows public institutions to operate police departments, including Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Baltimore. Hopkins — as a private institution — is not currently authorized to have such a force.
The bill also would require the state to spend millions of dollars each year on community programs.
The legislation has powerful supporters. Not only was it requested by leaders of Johns Hopkins — one of the most prestigious and largest employers in the city — but it has the backing of billionaire alumnus and donor Michael Bloomberg.
“I’m honored and glad today that through our amendments, we had an opportunity to have the voices of students, of faculty, of many people in the community who have grave concerns on this bill,” she said.
Washington’s failed amendments would have included giving millions of dollars to a new anti-violence fund, required the General Assembly approve a document governing the police force’s operations, altered the boundaries of where the officers could patrol and created a way for other private colleges to have police officers.
Carter’s failed amendments included changing the name of the bill from the “Community Safety and Strengthening Act” to “Private Institution Police Force Establishment.”
“Let the title of the bill reflect what the bill actually does,” Carter said.
Carter also proposed amendments to require a referendum vote on the Hopkins police by city voters, add the president of the university’s Black Student Union to an oversight board and eliminate police from the bill altogether, leaving only the funding for community programs.
Carter also had an amendment that would have required Hopkins to create a fund to honor Henrietta Lacks, a Turner Station woman whose cancer cells university researchers used without her knowledge to develop medical treatments.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, urged senators to reject the amendments. He said senators should respect the work done by the city’s senators, who debated and altered the bill before sending it forward.
Some of the changes that the city’s senators already made to the bill included restricting the areas where officers can patrol to the three campuses. The force would only be allowed to patrol nearby if the university gains support from neighboring community associations. Officers could respond to an urgent public safety emergency near a campus.
Rianna Matthews-Brown, Hopkins’ director of university initiatives, said she believed a university police force could be effective in fighting crime, even though senators have limited the patrol areas.
“Even within the narrow boundary, we can be helpful,” she said.
Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, said Hopkins will need to continue to work with the community if it moves forward with establishing the police force.
Scott said he hopes employees in the Hopkins’ current unarmed security force get a chance to apply for the police jobs.
“It’s looking like it’s going to pass,” Scott said. “I want to make sure that as many of the young men and women doing security jobs now, they’re able to move up the ladder.”