Neighbors of Johns Hopkins discuss the proposed Hopkins police force. (Jean Marbella/Baltimore Sun video)
Derik Leonard welcomed the prospect of a Johns Hopkins University police department, saying it could improve safety for customers and staff of the Canela restaurant he manages in Upper Fells Point, about a half-mile south of the renowned Hopkins hospital.
But state legislation to create the new force, which the Maryland Senate passed Thursday and is pending in a House committee, has been amended as the controversy over it continues to divide many in Baltimore. As the bill stands now, university officers couldn’t patrol beyond a tight perimeter surrounding the school’s three campuses — unless the adjacent neighborhoods and the City Council grant their approval.
Canela, at the intersection of Lombard and Ann streets, is a block outside the perimeter the legislation would establish around the East Baltimore medical campus.
“It shouldn’t just be about Johns Hopkins,” Leonard said. “It should be about the surrounding community. A lot of Johns Hopkins students walk around here — you’re going to protect them there, but not here?”
Those who live and work in the neighborhoods that would be affected — those surrounding the Homewood academic campus and the Peabody Institute conservatory in Mount Vernon, in addition to the hospital in East Baltimore — remain split over the private university creating an armed police force. Some believe extra officers could help curtail the street crimes that beset many communities; others say those who already feel racially profiled by police will have additional scrutiny from yet another law enforcement agency.
“I’ve never been locked up. I’m just a regular guy, and you’d be surprised how many times I’ve been stopped by police,” said Joshua Stevenson, a barista at The Bun Shop in Mount Vernon.
One of his customers, Anita Malone, agreed that another police department was a bad idea.
“Historically, police are targeting communities of color unjustly,” she said. “And I think adding more police to this area would just perpetuate that cycle.”
While such issues have been debated since Hopkins proposed the force last year, citing crime on and off campus, a new wrinkle emerged with the city Senate delegation amendment that would restrict officers from patrolling in surrounding areas without the approval of the neighborhoods and the City Council.
While Hopkins has provided maps proposing the new patrol boundaries, it’s unclear how that local approval would be solicited and accounted for. City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said the bill doesn’t specify a process.
Johns Hopkins officers could patrol areas adjacent to the outlined zones only with permission from Baltimore Police, the Baltimore City Council, and the community.
“This is something we would have to determine — how we would proceed,” he said. “Would it be through the community associations, or emails or letters, town halls, forums — who knows? That’s premature."
Hopkins officials said in a statement they believed the amendments addressed “concerns of the community and policymakers.”
“These changes go even further towards the goal of ensuring public accountability, public transparency and public input,” they said.
But many remain unswayed by such reassurances. Some students, faculty and surrounding neighborhood group members are vociferous in their opposition to a new armed force. Some note this is a city where the municipal police department is under a consent decree that mandates sweeping reforms to resolve a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found Baltimore Police Department officers routinely violated the civil rights of black residents.
The Abell Improvement Association is among a number of neighborhood groups near the Homewood campus to come out against the proposed campus police force. In January, members voted 40-0 against it, with three abstentions, according to a letter sent to state legislators.
Key Baltimore senators have voted to endorse a series of legislative amendments designed to win the Maryland General Assembly’s approval for an armed police force at Johns Hopkins University's campuses in the city.
“Just more eyes on the street is not a bad thing,” said Scott McDonnell, who owns Roberts Key Service in Mount Vernon.
McDonnell said he understands the points opponents make, but remains concerned about the number of armed robberies and other street crimes near his shop, which lies outside the proposed perimeter surrounding the Peabody.
“Something’s got to happen, something’s got to give about the crime in general,” he said. “Now it’s during the day. It’s not like it’s just at night anymore, at 2 a.m.”
He said he believes Hopkins police would be trained, perhaps have law enforcement backgrounds, and Hopkins’ fear of liability for any bad acts would serve to keep them in line. (And indeed, the bill specifies that the university and its police are not entitled to immunity from liability.)
“They’re not going to put themselves at risk,” McDonnell said. “The first incident that happens, it’s going to be tested.”
On the east side, McElderry Park Community Association President David Harris sees the police force as another way for Hopkins to encroach on East Baltimore neighborhoods without providing opportunities or economic equity for those living there.
“You don't really have a crime plan,” he said. “You just want to protect your investment — and mass-incarcerate people at a higher rate."
Residents directly to the south of the hospital complex have a lot of “significant and deep concerns” that are still unaddressed, said Chris Madaio, president of the Washington Hill Community Association.
Maryland Senate President Mike Miller says he'll push in the 2019 General Assembly session for several law enforcement initiatives in Baltimore, including approving a police force at Johns Hopkins University. Miller says he also wants to help the city hire 500 new police officers.
The current maps show at least the northern part of the neighborhood as part of the area where Hopkins police would be allowed to patrol. But the bill doesn’t address issues such as how community approval will be determined for patrolling beyond the perimeter, he said.
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“We don’t hear near enough from our Latino neighbors,” Madaio also said, noting they may be particularly reluctant to speak up on police matters, given the current climate surrounding immigration.
Whether Hopkins police would work with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement was among the concerns the group detailed in a letter last month to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. (The group sent the letter rather than taking a formal vote on whether to support the proposed police force, Madaio said.)
“We would not want JHU private police to partner or exchange information with ICE,” the letter said. “Despite our question on this to the JHU representative at our meeting, JHU did not address how it would operate its police if privatized and whether it would have an agreement with ICE, and there is no language in the bill that would prohibit such a partnership.”
The Hopkins website on the police proposal states that officers won’t ask about citizenship or enforce federal immigration laws “without a specific court order.”
Michele Mavias, who owns Canela in Upper Fells, said there’s two sides to everything — and she’s mostly too busy with her three-year-old restaurant to learn more about the Hopkins plan beyond what she hears on the news. She and Leonard, who have worked together for more than a decade, including a stint at a cafe on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, campus, spent some of Thursday interviewing staff for some openings.