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Baltimore senators to revisit Johns Hopkins University police force, as state Sen. Carter pushes repeal

An effort to revoke the permission Johns Hopkins University won to create an armed police force will get a hearing from Baltimore City’s state Senate delegation, although it remains unclear how many lawmakers are willing to revisit the hotly contested issue two years later.

The Johns Hopkins proposal won overwhelming support in 2019 from the General Assembly, but only after intense lobbying from the university, bitter debates between Baltimore lawmakers and loud protests from students.

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Johns Hopkins has yet to create the proposed department, which university leaders argued at the time was an urgent safety priority to patrol its three Baltimore campuses and protect students in a city marked by high rates of violent crime.

Instead, Johns Hopkins announced in June that it was putting those plans on pause for at least two years amid massive nationwide protests over police brutality.

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Now, several lawmakers who oppose a Johns Hopkins police force are pushing to abolish the agency before its founding, pointing to continued protests against the plan from Johns Hopkins students, faculty and community activists, including a monthlong sit-in at the university’s main administration building in 2019 that ended with seven arrests.

Johns Hopkins opposes repealing the authorization, even as its plans to launch a police agency remain on indefinite hold. Connor Scott, interim vice president for security at Johns Hopkins, sought to reassure lawmakers last month that an eventual department would be a model agency.

Many public universities in Maryland run their own police departments. But Hopkins, as a privately run nonprofit institution, needed legislative approval to turn its security force into a full-fledged police department.

“Blocking the department before it has begun would abandon years of hard work by community members and legislators and would continue to burden the Baltimore Police Department, while leaving Johns Hopkins without a viable solution for addressing the very serious threat of violent crime that we face in the city,” Scott told the Senate Judiciary Proceedings Committee in February.

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Students and faculty have said a campus police force would reinforce perceptions of the university as separate from the city. They also worry the department’s officers could create further disparities for people of color, who statistics show are more likely to be victims of police brutality. And opponents have said that a private department would be less accountable than government-operated agency like the Baltimore Police Department.

“It is a privately held, multibillion-dollar operation that now has the authority to establish a police force and that is a precedent that was very dangerous,” said state Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat.

The Baltimore City Senate delegation agreed Friday to pleas from Sen. Jill P. Carter to at least hold a hearing on repealing the Johns Hopkins police authorization. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, is sponsoring the bill and contended that the proposal has stalled in the legislature as a whole because Baltimore lawmakers haven’t formally weighed in.

Some of Carter’s Baltimore colleagues were keen to steer clear of the potentially hot-button political issue — and perhaps a bitterly divisive vote — given how it split local lawmakers two years ago. Baltimore’s senators backed the proposal in 2019 by a vote of 3-2, with Carter and Washington opposed. They were also the only senators to vote against the bill on the floor.

“I have no interest in having this piece of legislation serve as a wedge between me and my colleagues,” said Democratic Sen. Antonio Hayes, who backed the authorizing bill two years ago and described the political battle over it as a “brutal” experience.

Hayes also suggested there’s little chance for repeal to pass and that reopening a politically painful debate could be a pointless exercise.

Among the open questions is whether revoking the authorization for a Johns Hopkins police department counts as a so-called “delegation bill.” That’s the term for narrow legislation that usually effects only a single county or city. Such bills traditionally move forward in the General Assembly if they have the blessing of local lawmakers.

Ferguson contended that the broader policy implications of the bill — whether a private institution should be allowed to run a police department — make it an issue of statewide interest that shouldn’t be left to Baltimore lawmakers to decide.

But Carter is concerned that key committee leaders in both chambers haven’t scheduled votes on the bills. She noted that Montgomery Country Democrat Gabriel Acevero — who’s sponsoring the Johns Hopkins authorization repeal bill in the House of Delegates — was grilled by lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee about local support.

“Did you run this past the city delegation?” Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat, pointedly asked Acevero last month at a House Judiciary Committee meeting. “I remember the late Congressman [Elijah] Cummings testifying in front of the delegation, requesting this legislation. So, does the city support repealing this legislation?”

Acevero replied that he couldn’t speak for the city delegation, but he said he had talked with community members and was bringing the bill on behalf of “impacted communities.”

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