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Johns Hopkins University’s Private Police Force Would Bring More Cops To An Overpoliced Baltimore

A former Baltimore officer says the Hopkins plan should be viewed skeptically because campus police have a history of deadly force and its officials come from troubled Baltimore Police units.

Students Against Private Police/Facebook

“Your friend is a man!” bellowed a Baltimore police officer as a trans student involved in a peaceful sit-in to oppose the creation of a private police force at Johns Hopkins University was loaded into a police van. Protesters were furious that the trans student and a fellow protester were placed in a van designated for male arrestees. In an attempt to prevent the arrest, two protesters laid on the ground to block the van from leaving, but they were also arrested.

The clash between city police and protesters occurred in the early morning hours of May 8, when several dozen officers raided the university’s main administration building and arrested seven students and community members. The arrests ended a sit-in that began on April 3 to protest the passage of Senate Bill 793, also known as the Community Safety and Strengthening Act, which grants Hopkins the power to establish its own police force.

The bill was passed by the Maryland General Assembly on April 1 and signed by Governor Larry Hogan on April 18. It will take effect on July 1. Ronald Daniels, Hopkins’s president, said the plan will create a 100-member private police force with 10 to 12 officers and two or three supervisors on patrol cross their campuses, which include the Homewood academic campus, the medical campus in East Baltimore and the Peabody Institute in the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood.

Protesters opposed not only the armed campus police force but also the university’s refusal to end contracts for education programs with ICE.

Mayor’s support for private police

The push by Hopkins for its own police force began in 2018 after university officials became concerned about an increase in violent crime, including several armed robberies, around campus. When asked about a potential force in March 2018, Mayor Catherine Pugh supported the idea, pointing to campus forces at other colleges in Baltimore including Coppin State and Morgan State universities. Unlike Hopkins, these universities are public. Other private colleges in the city, like Loyola University and Maryland Institute College of Art, have unarmed campus security. They also pay off-duty police officers to patrol their campuses.

On Jan. 9, 2019, several Hopkins administrators donated $16,000 in separate individual contributions to Pugh’s campaign fund, including a $3,000 contribution from Daniels.

About one month after those donations were made, state senator Antonio Hayes introduced the Hopkins police bill on Pugh’s behalf. The first public hearings were held on Feb. 22. On Feb. 28, Pugh wrote an op-ed in support of a Hopkins police force for The Afro, a Black-owned Baltimore weekly. Pugh said that her then-nominee for police commissioner, Michael Harrison, was also in favor of the idea. Pugh wrote that she supported the creation of a private police force in part because attrition in the Baltimore Police Department created a shortage of cops.

Many students, however, opposed the Hopkins police force because they were concerned about racial profiling. “We don’t feel as though that will make us as black students, the minorities, safer on this campus,” Kwame Alston, president of the Black Student Union, told the Johns Hopkins News-Letter. In a letter to the Baltimore Sun, undergraduate student Ezinne Ogbonna wrote that Hopkins security stopped and asked her, “Can you prove that you go here?” And opposition to the Hopkins force isn’t confined to students. Over 100 faculty members signed a letter against the plan. Among their many concerns is that campus police may resort to frequent arrests to justify its existence.

Hopkins security team’s troubled pasts

In April 2018, Hopkins named Melissa Hyatt, a 20-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and its highest-ranking female officer, as vice president of security. She was also a high-ranking member of the command staff during the period that the department’s Gun Trace Task Force robbed people, planted drugs and weapons on residents, and defrauded the city of thousands of dollars in fraudulent overtime. She was also directly involved with the response to the uprising after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.

In the mid-2000s, Hyatt was a sergeant in the west side Special Enforcement Team, a specialized unit with a history of serious misconduct allegations. The unit was later disbanded and renamed the Violent Crime Impact Section while retaining many of the same officers and generating a high volume of citizen complaints.

Jarron Jackson, Hopkins’s senior director of campus security, was another officer who worked in the west side unit. He spent several years in other specialized units and eventually was promoted to sergeant and joined the Media Relations Section. He remained in that unit as a lieutenant and captain before leaving to join Hopkins.  

I worked as a patrol officer in the Northern District, where Hopkins’s Homewood campus is located, from 2000-2005 and then again from 2008-2012. Many students live in the surrounding neighborhoods. Although some have been victims of robberies or car break-ins, the most common calls for service were noise complaints related to parties at off-campus housing.

I rarely responded to the Hopkins campus for emergency calls. But when I did, I recovered and submitted marijuana that campus security seized from dorm rooms. I responded to at least half a dozen calls where security had entered a room based on the smell of marijuana and then searched it. This was reminiscent of the pretext that Baltimore police used to search vehicles. Sometimes, the rooms were empty of students by the time I arrived.

When I worked patrol in that area, it was common for off-duty police working at Hopkins to stop people who were walking through Charles Village or to conduct car stops as far away as Greenmount Avenue, a street well east of the campus.

Deadly force by campus police

Hopkins currently has an unarmed security force, commonly referred to as “Hop Cops”. It also employs off-duty city police officers and city sheriff’s deputies to patrol the areas around the campus.

It’s unclear what Hopkins and Baltimore will ultimately agree on regarding where university police will patrol in the communities surrounding Hopkins’s campuses. University officials have said they want the officers to be allowed “fresh pursuit” onto city streets when chasing a “suspected offender.” But in recent years, campus police across the country who operate off campus have been involved in encounters—some deadly—with non-students.

On April 16, in New Haven, Connecticut, a campus officer from Yale University, was one of two officers who shot into a vehicle occupied by an unarmed Black couple who were erroneously reported to have been involved in an armed robbery at a gas station. Yale officer Terrance Pollock failed to activate his body camera or his vehicle’s dashboard camera. Neither the alleged armed robbery nor the shooting by police occurred on the Yale campus.

In May 2017, William Bess Jr. was pulled over by Temple University police officers while driving through an area of Philadelphia near the school. He said he was ordered out of his car and onto the ground at gunpoint and handcuffed. The car was then searched by the officers, who found nothing. They apologized and released him.

This year, on May 1, Bess filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Temple University Police Department. “If he was a white kid, you would have assumed he was coming from class, from Temple. You would have thought nothing of it,” Bess’s mother told WHYY. “He pulled over a black kid in a BMW assuming something was wrong. That he was a drug dealer, that the car was stolen.”

On July 19, 2015, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing pulled over a car driven by Samuel DuBose because of a missing license plate. During the stop, which did not occur on university property, DuBose attempted to drive off and Tensing shot him in the head, killing him. Tensing was tried twice on murder charges, but both trials ended in a hung jury. The University of Cincinnati settled with the DuBose family for $4.85 million and free tuition at the university for DuBose’s children.

Before joining the University of Cincinnati Police Department, Tensing worked for small police departments in Ohio and dropped out of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s training academy after one day. “Basically, he couldn’t adapt,” a sergeant said. When Tensing was removed from the department after DuBose’s death, the Fraternal Order of Police filed a grievance. In May 2018 Tensing was awarded $244,230 in back pay. “I’m very upset with UC paying that murderer Tensing,” the mother of four of DuBose’s children said. “He’s officially a paid assassin who has not shown one ounce of remorse for killing an innocent man.”

In July 2013, police killed Baltimore resident Tyrone West during a traffic stop. A Morgan State University officer was among the officers present.

Protesters at the Hopkins sit-in hosted West’s sister Tawanda Jones and her West Wednesday movement, named for a weekly protest she has held since his death. In early May, Hopkins officials tried to discourage Jones from going on campus to participate in the sit-in. “Nobody is going to stop me,” she said. “The Baltimore Police Department didn’t stop me, the state’s attorney didn’t stop me, the medical examiner’s office didn’t stop me, you honestly think this foolishness is going to stop me?”

Transparency promises

Hopkins promises that its police will be transparent and a model of adherence to the Constitution. There will be body-worn cameras, a 15-member accountability board composed of Hopkins employees and an as yet undetermined number of students, and a hearing board for police misconduct that would include up to two members of the public. The department will also be under the purview of Baltimore City’s Civilian Review Board. The Civilian Review Board investigates complaints against Baltimore police and can recommend punishment against officers, even though the department is under no obligation to follow those recommendations.

But Hopkins police will enjoy the benefits of the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which offers some of the strongest protections for cops in the country. For example, if an officer is involved in a shooting or accused of misconduct, the officer has 10 days from being notified in writing of the investigation to consult with legal counsel and provide a statement to investigators.

There are other ominous signs for the Hopkins police. On May 6, Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski nominated Melissa Hyatt to be the county’s next police chief; she will leave her position at Hopkins before its police force has even been established. Less than 48 hours later, city police descended upon Hopkins to shut down the protests. Troublingly, City Solicitor Andre Davis said of the arrests, “I have to tell you, the behavior of the Baltimore City Police in this instance was a model.”

Baltimore’s institutions are in the midst of a credibility crisis. In early May, Mayor Pugh resigned after thousands of copies of her children’s book series “Healthy Holly” were purchased by the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she sat, and by private companies like Kaiser Permanente that sought lucrative multimillion-dollar contracts with the city. Pugh is now under federal and state investigation.

There is also continuing fallout from the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, including a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the family of Elbert Davis Sr. against the Baltimore Police Department and Pugh. Davis, 86, was killed in a 2010 car accident that occurred when task force members attempted to wrongfully arrest two men. According to the lawsuit, the officers planted 32 grams of heroin in the wrecked vehicle driven by one of the men in order to justify the wrongful stop and deadly vehicle pursuit.

An overpoliced city grappling with such systemic corruption does not need another law enforcement institution.