The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Johns Hopkins wants to change policing. Many fear it won’t work.

After protests, two-year ‘pause,’ the Baltimore university moves ahead with a campus police force

David Thomas, program director for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, leads a “Trauma to Trust” training at Johns Hopkins University on Sept. 22. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)

A swarm of protesters snaked through Johns Hopkins University’s campus in Baltimore and delivered a petition to the president’s doorstep, demanding — yet again — he put an end to a controversial, years-long plan to create a police force for the private institution.

They thought they had the wind at their backs. It had been about a month since George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in 2020, and Johns Hopkins officials had said they would put the police plan on hold for at least two years. Officials promised to use the time to invest in policing alternatives, improve its existing security team and work with city leadership on police reform.

“We felt a sense of righteous anger that we thought would translate into the administration taking another path,” said Lester Spence, a political science and Africana studies professor who spoke at a rally before the march. He said a community already aghast at police abuses hoped to halt the creation of another one.

Since then, Johns Hopkins has hired a team of mental health counselors to handle nonviolent, behavioral emergencies and created a $6 million fund for community crime prevention projects — measures intended to blunt some of the criticism and fears about the police force. It has also implemented new trainings for public safety officers, including expanded sessions on topics such as trauma and gender identity.

Now, the university is preparing again to launch the force. Branville G. Bard Jr., who was named vice president for public safety in July 2021, said he hopes to see officers on duty during the 2023-2024 academic year. There is a new sense of urgency for a safer campus, he added.

Johns Hopkins University signals plans to move forward with controversial private police force

“It’s something that I’m hearing with the volume turned way up,” Bard said. Crime in and around campus had been falling before the pandemic, an analysis shows. But recent mass killings across the country, as well as nearby shootings, have some on edge, Bard said. “I’m being bombarded with concerns about not just active shooters but violence on and around our campuses.”

But it is still unclear whether the university can mollify lingering concerns about the police force. Activists in Baltimore cite the city’s own troubled police department, fearing Johns Hopkins’s squad will fall to the same corruption, racial profiling and excessive use of force. Many students at the university — and on campuses throughout the country — continue to criticize traditional policing and push their schools to embrace changes.

Critics have pledged to protest until the university backs down. The university, meanwhile, recently hired consultants to help implement the long-awaited department.

A years-long effort

Public universities in Baltimore have long had their own police departments, but Johns Hopkins, a private school, needed the state’s approval. In 2018, it asked Maryland lawmakers for the green light.

Yet rather than move forward, lawmakers asked the university to do more research. The school collected additional feedback from the community and published its findings. It worked with state Sen. Antonio L. Hayes (D-Baltimore City), who sponsored a measure that would increase oversight of the planned force.

The legislation — requiring measures including a 15-member accountability board, a complaint process and a hearing board for police misconduct — passed in 2019. Officers would also wear body cameras, and the department would be subject to the Maryland Public Information Act.

The university said it needs police on the main grounds in Baltimore’s Homewood neighborhood, the medical school and conservatory to defend the community from a sustained surge of violent crime. A 2018 survey of university staff revealed concerns about robberies, drug use and harassment near school property. Some also requested a larger security presence.

School leaders still point to the same reasoning, even as crime has fallen to levels not seen since the mid-2010s.

In 2018, the Homewood campus logged a little less than three violent crimes per thousand full-time equivalent students when weighted by fall enrollment numbers, a Washington Post analysis of the federal Clery Act crime data showed. That number fell to 1.62 in 2019, the last year for which data is available before classes were disrupted by the pandemic.

It’s a crime rate higher than other large, private and urban campuses. George Washington University, in the nation’s capital, and Philadelphia’s Drexel University reported about 1.3 violent crimes on the schools’ largest campuses per thousand students in 2019, the analysis found. Both of those institutions have their own police departments.

But Johns Hopkins is motivated by the belief that it can change policing. “At the end of the day, sworn policing remains a critical, indeed indispensable, component of an effective public safety regime,” said the university’s president, Ronald J. Daniels. The school employs more than 1,200 unarmed security officers and special police, about two-thirds of whom cannot intervene in serious crimes.

About 60 off-duty Baltimore City police officers and deputy sheriffs — who are armed and have full arrest powers — also work on the campus, but their presence is spotty and they are often pulled away to respond to crime elsewhere in the city, officials said.

The school plans to replace those off-duty officers with its own force of up to 100 supervisors, command staff, detectives, community relations officers and patrol officers. “We should be able to provide more consistent turnout rates with people trained for the campus environment, and in particular to be effective first responders when there’s an incident on campus,” Daniels said.

The president pointed to carjackings, assaults and shootings near campus that “have fueled those demands for more effective policing,” he said. In the year before the pandemic, Johns Hopkins recorded 40 aggravated assaults across its three campuses. The city’s five public colleges and universities, which have police departments, reported 18 such incidents between them. Most of the local universities also reported fewer robberies that year.

But, Daniels said of policing, “the key is that that function should be provided, must be provided, in a way that meets contemporary standards of performance and public accountability — and particularly is responsive to the concerns that have been raised about racialized policing.”

As part of a strategy developed in the past two years, the department will work with the Behavioral Health Crisis Support Team, therapists who will respond with officers to mental health emergencies. About 30 percent of calls made to public safety are related to mental health, campus officials said.

“It’ll raise the standard of care for individuals who are in the throes of a mental health crisis,” Bard said, adding the team has responded to more than 50 calls since last fall.

Kim Sutter, a crisis intervention counselor on the team who has worked with police departments for two decades said she’s seen “a lot of interest and hunger” on the part of police to understand trauma and mental illnesses. In November, she and another clinician attended a training session with public safety officers, during which a staff member pretended to be a student going through a traumatic breakup. She laid near a bottle of pills and half-empty handles of liquor.

The exercise ended with Sutter referring the “student” to mental health resources.

“This is an example of the evolution of public safety,” said Jarron Jackson, senior director of public safety on the Homewood campus.

The push against police

Jordan Britton was sitting in a lounge area inside Charles Commons, something he did often when he wasn’t working in the residence hall’s mailroom. It was just months before his graduation in 2018, and Britton said he was approached twice — first by one school security guard, then by a pair of guards who asked whether he was a student.

“The fact that I was questioned about my status, so quickly back-to-back, for doing something I had done every day, it was just a very clear example of how I and other Black students are made to feel like we don’t really fit in at the school, or we don’t really belong at the school,” said Britton, who majored in math and is now an illustrator. About 8 percent of the university’s more than 32,000 students are Black or African American, campus data shows.

Britton said he believes he was racially profiled, something he said “constantly” happened to Black students. Many currently on campus fear it will only get worse when the university empowers officers who can make arrests. They also worry the presence of armed police will lead to brutality.

Cionne Gates, a rising senior and member of the school’s Black Student Union, said she has had positive experiences with campus security, turning to officers when she needed an escort home late at night. Still, she is wary about having armed officers on campus.

“I don’t want it,” Gates said, “knowing that with police it’s never, generally, really a positive experience for communities of color.”

Thousands of students, faculty, staff and Baltimore residents have signed petitions condemning the state legislation that authorized Johns Hopkins to build a police department and demanding the university change course. Meanwhile, multiple neighborhood associations, prominent community groups and local politicians have raised concerns about the privatization of a public good.

Arrests at Hopkins in protest over creation of campus police force

The Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins, a group of community organizations and campus clubs, is among the proposal’s most vocal critics. The group maintains a log of offenses allegedly committed by Johns Hopkins public safety officers — from violating the school’s mask-wearing policy to posting racist and transphobic memes to Facebook.

Some coalition organizers were part of a 35-day protest in 2019, during which students and some Baltimore residents occupied an administrative building on campus. They argued a police force would not make Johns Hopkins any safer, particularly for Black people. Seven people were arrested, but charges were later dropped.

The case for funneling more resources to police can be a difficult one to make in Baltimore, a city that gained national attention in 2015 when 25-year-old Freddie Gray died of a spinal-cord injury he suffered in police custody. His death led to extended protests and a federal consent decree that prescribes, among other things, that city leaders build community trust, prevent discriminatory policing and curtail excessive force. Other high-profile missteps since have further deteriorated people’s trust in police.

The city’s contentious relationship with Johns Hopkins, a majority White institution in a mostly Black city, is yet another complicating factor in the school’s attempts to win over critics. Residents refer to a litany of abuses perpetrated by the nearly 150-year-old school, including urban renewal efforts in the early 2000s that displaced hundreds of Black families.

“Anything that happens with the community and Hopkins, it doesn’t end well,” said Donald Gresham, president of the nonprofit Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment. “People of color have not been able to address the issues and concerns that we have with Hopkins.”

Johns Hopkins enslaved people. Or did he? Some scholars question the university’s recent claims.

Daniels, the university president, is aware of his school’s fraught relationship with the community. The university has spent the past several months publicizing its Innovation Fund for Community Safety — a $6 million investment over four years in community-led programs designed to prevent violence and stabilize neighborhoods. The grant recipients include organizations that provide job training, legal services to Baltimoreans at risk of losing their homes, and support to people using drugs and doing sex work.

“The truth is here that all of the measures that we’re taking here do not demand trust up front,” he said. “The expectation is that trust will be earned.”

Colleges beyond Baltimore have also faced scrutiny over policing. Students at the University of Louisville demanded the school cut ties with the Louisville Metro police after officers fatally shot Breonna Taylor, an emergency room technician, during a botched home raid in 2020. Officials resisted those calls, but now limits the campus’s use of local law enforcement and requires de-escalation and cultural sensitivity training for officers, among other changes, leaders said.

After students at American University complained that the school’s use of an unmarked patrol car made them feel surveilled, not safe, leaders said it would be reserved only for emergencies. A proposal to form a police oversight board — an idea a former student body president proposed after D.C. and campus police forced a Black student out of her dorm room during a wellness check in 2019 — has also been discussed by top officials.

Some on campus say there is a lingering distrust of campus police, however. The student who was removed from her dorm room sued the university in 2020, alleging discrimination.

Will Johns Hopkins be different?

More than a year into the pause on Johns Hopkins’s police department, the university began signaling it would move ahead. Last summer, it hired Bard, a career law enforcement official, to lead the public safety team — and oversee the creation of a police force.

A native Philadelphian, Bard rose through the ranks of his hometown’s police force before he was tapped to lead the department in Cambridge, Mass. There, he built a reputation as an advocate for police reform, establishing the department’s division for family and social justice.

But the force drew accusations of police brutality in 2018 when an officer was filmed repeatedly punching a Harvard University student who was found naked off campus and experiencing a mental health crisis. An independent review of the department’s investigation later found officers “acted appropriately” and did not use excessive force.

More than a year into the pause on Johns Hopkins’s police department, the university began signaling it would move ahead. Last summer, it hired Bard, a career law enforcement official, to lead the public safety team — and oversee the creation of a police force.

Video shows police punching a Harvard student after he was found naked in the street

The vice president was present on a balmy June evening, where Innovation Fund grantees dined on crab cakes and traded philosophies about public safety. That same day, a group of students was planning a virtual event to talk about resisting the Johns Hopkins police department.

They shared tweets about “West Wednesdays,” a weekly demonstration hosted by Tawanda Jones to demand justice for her brother Tyrone West, a 44-year-old Black man who died in the custody of Baltimore and Morgan State University police after a traffic stop in 2013. Organizers still recite the name of Lavar Montray Douglas, who was 18 when he was fatally shot by a Coppin State University officer in 2016.

The incidents make Rachel Strodel, a medical student at Johns Hopkins, question how her campus police force will be any different.

“Policing is already such a harmful force in our city,” Strodel said. “Why would we have the hubris to think that we could make policing so much better?”

Sahana Jayaraman contributed to this report.

Loading...