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Reinvigorated by national protests, foes of Hopkins police force renew efforts

As of early Wednesday, more than 4,000 have signed petition

Johns Hopkins University, in a statement, says it is disappointed that federal regulators ignored objections to proposed mandatory live hearings when they finalized the rules. (The Daily Record/File photo)

Johns Hopkins University, in a statement, says it will be in “close communication” with the community before moving forward with plans to create a police department. The legislature last year approved a plan for the proposed police force, a proposal that has long divided the campus community. (The Daily Record/File photo)

Faculty at Johns Hopkins University are circulating a petition calling on President Ronald J. Daniels to halt the creation of an armed private police force on campus.

Legislation enacted last year, which allows Hopkins to create the police force, came only after a years-long  and contentious community debate between those who said it would lower crime and others who said it would exacerbate tensions on campus. Now, with nationwide protests over police brutality expanding into demands for sweeping reforms, the Hopkins police debate has been revived.

The petition, which has been signed by over 4,000 faculty, staff, students and alumni as of 11 a.m. Jun. 10, was sparked by discussions between 80 to 100 concerned faculty, said Clara Han, an associate professor of anthropology at JHU. The petition said that JHU leaders have recognized the pervasiveness of structural racism due to the recent deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

“The University’s plans to establish an armed police force are fundamentally at odds with our values as an institution,” the petition said. “Black and Brown students, faculty, and staff at Johns Hopkins and residents of Baltimore City have been clear: We are already disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and see a Hopkins police force as a threat to our safety and the safety of our friends and families.”

Proponents of the police force have said it would combat violent crime at JHU’s academic and medical campuses, which has increased relative to major city universities. In 2017, JHU accounted for almost three-fourths of aggravated assaults and over half of robberies reported across six city institutions, according to a report from Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Security.

Marissa Varnado, a recent JHU alumna who participated in the 2019 student occupation of Garland Hall, said she signed the petition.

Varnado said Tyrone West’s 2013 death influenced her decision to sign and serves as an example of what petitioners want to avoid at JHU.

West died after Baltimore Police Department officers pulled him over because they believed he was hiding a weapon, according to  news reports. When they found cocaine on his person, West fled and additional police came to pursue him, including Morgan State University officers.

Police held West to the ground and handcuffed him. He stopped breathing shortly afterward, and the medical examiner ruled that he died of a heart issue made worse by the heat and his struggle with the officers.

His family said the department was unable to produce the drugs from their evidence locker or provide documentation of them.

The petition mentioned the deaths of West and Freddie Gray, who died from injuries sustained while in Baltimore police custody in 2015.

Han, one of the approximately 20 professors who organized the petition’s specifics, said they fear a private police force extending its jurisdiction over surrounding neighborhoods.

“The issue with private police is that they are not accountable to elected city leaders. It is actually an anti-democratic form of policing because police are not accountable essentially to the vote of the city residents,” Han said. “And so that in itself is a really, really very disturbing quality.”

Some advocates who pushed for the campus police department said they were motivated by the desire to no longer have the campus overseen by Baltimore city police.

JHU said on its Public Safety Initiatives website that it will hold the police force accountable by creating a Police Accountability Board, which will include representation from the campus community and bordering neighborhoods. The university will also create a complaint process that ensures timely investigation, include civilians in any state-mandated administrative hearing boards, submit the police to Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board, require body cameras and comply with state reporting requirements.

Petitioners said traditional forms of accountability do not work in an era where even those police departments who must answer to local and state governments engage in repeated violence with impunity.

“The unfortunate reality is that an unjustified shooting or killing involving a Hopkins officer is likely,” the petition said. “A preventable tragedy will lead to deep pain across our University, damage our relationship with the City, shatter our reputation as a global leader in education, and further jeopardize our financial stability.”

In a statement, the university said it shared the community’s anger and was committed to standing against system racism, but officials did not address the petition’s demand that the police force be abandoned.

“We committed to establishing this department through a slow, careful and fully open process,” the statement said.  “The only step taken to date has been the recent first meeting of the JHPD Accountability Board, which is composed of neighbors, faculty, staff, and students with diverse views about policing.  No other steps are planned at this time, and we will be in close communication with the city and our university community before any further steps are taken.”

 


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