Johns Hopkins University, a thriving private research institution with one of the world’s foremost medical schools, wants to create an armed police force similar to those patrolling numerous other U.S. colleges and universities. But in its home city of Baltimore, split by deep divisions and seared by years of discriminatory policing, it’s not going to happen easily.
A bill that would authorize a force for Johns Hopkins’ three city campuses is nearing conclusive votes in Maryland’s legislature — just one year after lawmakers chose not to endorse such an idea after being flooded with constituents’ objections. The revamped proposal to establish a roughly 100-member armed force — the result of months of research and meetings with community groups — is stirring intense debate between those who aim to boost campus safety amid Baltimore’s struggles against runaway violent crime and those who fear police profiling in a starkly unequal city.
The dispute has laid bare the 143-year-old institution’s complicated relationship with Baltimore. Some residents of the struggling city mistrust the school that in past decades conducted problematic experiments on black patients — part of a legacy of racial discrimination that once permeated medical research — and more recently displaced residents to expand its footprint.
“Despite the prolific medical and scientific advances that have come from within its walls, Hopkins has a history of systematically neglecting and exploiting the community that houses it,” said Max White, one of numerous students urging lawmakers to reject their school’s proposal.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Johns Hopkins to Baltimore: The elite university is the city’s anchor institution, while the school and its health system combined is Maryland’s biggest private employer. The university contributes about $5 billion in economic output to the city, and it’s long been a magnet for top-tier researchers and students.
“Hopkins is a rarity in Baltimore: a local multibillion-dollar conglomerate,” said Antero Pietila, author of the “The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City.”
“It is an island of First World excellence in a city that increasingly exhibits Third World dysfunctions.”
While many proponents say the need to ensure high-quality policing in and around the school’s Baltimore campuses is indisputable, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniel said he understands the concerns that have arisen amid an ongoing nationwide debate over policing, race and criminal-justice reform.
“It’s not surprising at all that people are raising legitimate issues around how the conferral of this power will be responsibly discharged by the university,” Daniels said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The debate comes as the majority African-American city, where many neighborhoods are cleaved along racial lines, struggles to move past its strife nearly four years after a young black man named Freddie Gray died from an injury received in police custody. The death prompted massive protests and rioting. Baltimore is also under federal oversight to address longstanding patterns of unconstitutional policing. At the same time, its police officers are straining to control violent crime since the 2015 unrest.
Armed police forces on U.S. campuses are increasingly common. A U.S. Justice Department report from 2015 noted about 75 percent of the country’s four-year colleges and universities with more than 2,500 students were using armed officers, and the large majority of them had arrest and patrol jurisdictions extending beyond campus boundaries.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, said urban campuses have particular safety needs “that municipal police departments aren’t always able to meet, especially when it comes to student” safety.
Efforts to establish a Hopkins police force began in earnest after what Daniels called a “very difficult spasm” of robberies in late 2017. School researchers examined trends at Baltimore universities equipped with armed police and found Hopkins suffered from a disproportionate number of aggravated assaults, Daniels said.
“There was this dawning recognition that we’re in a city that’s grappling with very significant problems around criminal violence and yet as a university we’re dramatically out of step,” Daniels said.
Supporters include Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, and billionaire alumnus Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who last year announced he was donating $1.8 billion to Hopkins — the largest contribution ever to any U.S. educational institution.
Cummings on Tuesday testified passionately in favor of the bill. “Sure as day becomes night and night becomes day, blood will be spilled” if it isn’t passed, he warned legislators.
Outspoken critics include state Sen. Mary Washington, whose district includes part of the school’s Homewood campus, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and more than 100 faculty members. A group called Students Against Private Police has led multiple protests.
An objection of Hopkins political science professor Lester Spence, who is African-American, is that the force would also work in streets abutting the campuses. “The force Hopkins proposes … will bleed out into surrounding areas,” he said. “The unit will be unaccountable to those residents.”
Chisom Okereke, president of the Hopkins’ Black Student Union, said she’s worried that a “weaponized” force could tragically escalate any confrontations between police and students of color.
But Johns Hopkins Hospital President Redonda Miller stressed that many people are worried about becoming victims of violence around the East Baltimore complex.
“They’re scared when they walk home. They’re scared when they walk to their cars,” she said.