When outrage over George Floyd’s murder rippled through the country two-and-a-half years ago, the Johns Hopkins University had a problem. The school had been pushing to start an armed, private police force to protect its Baltimore campuses, and the already controversial proposal was suddenly even more toxic.
So Ron Daniels, the university president, put the idea on hold as he vowed to reimagine campus safety in the wake of a nationwide reckoning over race and policing.
But instead of a turning point, it was only an intermission.
Hopkins revived plans for the force earlier this year and announced that it still intends to hire 100 officers to patrol its city properties, even though the surge in campus crime that prompted the original plan has receded, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Banner.
There’s also little evidence that Hopkins has been swayed by a flood of critical community feedback as it seeks to complete an operating agreement with the city police department, one of the final steps before the school can hire officers of its own, as soon as next year. Letters from concerned faculty members have gone unanswered, and protests led by students prompted threats of discipline, not discussion.
Meanwhile, school officials have not identified any group, on campus or in the surrounding neighborhoods, that supports the idea.
According to the university’s own report on the original proposal, some of the most enthusiastic backers of the new force are parents, alumni and trustees who “may live out of state.”
“They talk about wanting to be a community partner, but they never do any listening,” said Diana Emerson, who lives near the school’s Homewood campus. She leads a coalition of neighborhood groups that oppose the plan. “They say, ‘Thanks for voicing your concerns, we hear you,’ but then they do what they want anyway. It’s exhausting.”
The tension over policing reflects the uneasy coexistence between Hopkins, an elite private institution where fewer than one in 10 students are Black and undergraduate tuition and fees top $60,000 per year, and the city of Baltimore, where two-thirds of residents are Black and the median household income is roughly $50,000.
Hopkins doesn’t seem willing to back down. Four years ago, Daniels personally lobbied for legislation that authorized the school to develop the force. Last year, a measure seeking to repeal that bill stalled, in part because state Senate President Bill Ferguson, who previously worked for Hopkins, and whose top staff member was a Hopkins lobbyist, declined to support it.
Branville Bard Jr., Hopkins’ vice president for public safety, said the two-year pause in development of the plan was never about reevaluating Hopkins’ need for armed, private police but rather about the extra time required to develop what he hopes will become the nation’s most progressive university police department. During the pause, the school invested in alternative strategies to reduce violence, and state lawmakers passed a package of bills aimed at improving all law enforcement agencies.
He dismissed any suggestion that a drop in the rate of violent crime on Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus, before a single university police officer was hired, should warrant a reassessment of the size or scope of the proposed force. Any robbery or aggravated assault is too many, he said.
“We are still besieged by violence, and it’s unacceptable,” Bard said in an interview.
Critics of the plan like state Sen. Jill Carter, who wrote the failed repeal legislation, said the deck feels stacked against what so many students, staff and neighbors say they want — for the university to scrap the idea altogether.
“The will of the people is no challenge for an entity as great as Hopkins,” Carter said. “They’ve got the money, the lobbyists, the resources and the name. That makes it easier to find people to do as it wishes so it can get what it wants.”
‘There has to be a better path’
Violent crime had been ticking up on and around Hopkins’ campuses for several years before the school first sought state approval to form a police department in early 2018. Legislative authorization is required because Hopkins is a private school.
No other private universities in Maryland have sworn police departments, but several of the state’s public institutions do, including Morgan State University and the University of Maryland. Elsewhere, police patrol the campuses of private schools such as Drexel University, Yale University and the University of Chicago.
Within days of Daniels’ announcement that plans to develop an armed force were underway, a group of Black faculty members wrote to him, urging him to reconsider.
Opposition to the plan has been steady and sustained ever since.
The faculty members argued in their letter that a new police force could only exacerbate problems for people of color on campus, and that it would increase fear among the city’s vulnerable populations, too.
“Let’s open a dialogue at Johns Hopkins, one that permits us as a community to take stock of where we are and work together on a way forward with all community members, on and off our campus, in mind,” the seven Black faculty members wrote. “We believe there has to be a better path.”
Neither the letter nor the dozens of people who marched to Daniels’ home around that time to protest the plan deterred him. What did slow down implementation of the force, at least temporarily, was a request by state lawmakers who represent Baltimore to closely study the school’s crime problem as well as a range of possible solutions.
So, ahead of the 2019 legislative session, Hopkins released a lengthy report exploring those questions that built the case for the force and teed up the Annapolis victory the school would secure that year. The document, known as the interim study report, also talked about who was for and against the plan.
One section of the report on opposition to the force said some Hopkins community members thought university police officers would target and harass Black people on campus. They told school officials the plan should be scrapped because Freddie Gray’s 2015 death shows that “policing, corruption and abuses of power go hand in hand.”
Another section of the document named parents, alumni and trustees “who are part of the Johns Hopkins community but may live out of state” as among the plan’s strongest supporters. These people frequently weighed in online in support of the proposal and were more likely to send letters or call university leadership to encourage them to move forward, according to the report.
This meant some of the Hopkins community members most enthusiastic about hiring private, armed officers to patrol the school’s campuses would never be policed by them.
Carter, the state senator, said she thinks Daniels succeeded the second time around thanks to his skillful lobbying, which started with the interim study report and included a private luncheon for her and other Baltimore lawmakers at his home, at which he pitched the plan’s merits to them. She believes her colleagues had been won over and their minds made up before the 2019 legislation was even introduced.
Carter was one of only two state senators who voted against the measure, which passed and was signed into law.
“There was no real chance the bill would fail,” she said. “Hopkins learned from its mistakes and guaranteed its success.”
Afterward, opposition intensified again.
Students conducted a 35-day sit-in at a Hopkins administration building to protest establishment of the force. Faculty passed a resolution opposing the idea and appealed directly to the school’s Board of Trustees, urging them to reconsider. A poll conducted by the Student Government Association found three in four undergraduate students opposed the plan. A letter calling on Hopkins to abandon the effort garnered more than 6,000 signatures from faculty, staff, students, alumni and neighbors.
Ben Taylor, who is pursing a doctorate in political science at Hopkins, said private police will make the school feel more dangerous, not less. He participated in the sit-in and continues to oppose the plan. “The addition of lethal weapons won’t make me feel more safe,” he said. “It makes it more likely that community members will feel violence instigated by police.”
Judah Adashi, a Hopkins faculty member who teaches music composition, said, “A lot of us feel very solid in the knowledge that this is going to do harm.”
None of that was enough to get Daniels to budge.
It was only after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, and the protests across the country that followed, including in Baltimore, that he put plans to develop the force on hold — and the pause, we know now, would only be temporary.
Campus crime is down, or flat
Daniels cited a “sustained surge” in violence as the reason he sought legislative approval to form a police department, so The Banner examined whether and how rates of violent crime on Hopkins’ campuses had changed since he first unveiled the plan in 2018.
Combining crime data from the Baltimore Police Department, population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and maps of the proposed patrol zones, The Banner calculated crime rates per thousand residents for each campus and found violent crime within their borders was either flat or down between 2018 and 2021.
On the Homewood campus, where most first-year students and sophomores live, there have been fewer than two violent incidents per month on average since 2018. Last year, there were 22 assaults and robberies in total. Violent crime was even less prevalent on the Peabody campus, which has seen roughly one incident per month since 2018.
No shootings have occurred on either Hopkins property in at least the last seven years, city data shows.
Some residents like Kevin Cleary, a Hopkins alumnus who lives near the Homewood campus, said the university police force is still needed because “every neighborhood should have zero violent crime.” Shedrick Elliott III, a Baltimore resident and assistant track and field coach at the school, said he supports the plan because he trusts Bard and believes in his vision.
Violence has always been more common on the school’s East Baltimore campus, where four homicides, seven rapes and 15 shootings have occurred since Daniels paused development of the force. But even there, the overall rate of violent crime per thousand residents is down 17 percent since 2018 despite the number of people living on campus increasing by more than 2,000 residents during that period. One East Baltimore resident who opposes the plan has even filed a lawsuit with other neighbors and written to Mayor Brandon Scott, asking for his help as they try to stop it.
Scott declined to take a position on Hopkins’ plan when he was asked about it earlier this year, but in 2018, he criticized state lawmakers for not seeking or requiring City Council input on the authorizing legislation.
Hopkins’ three Baltimore campuses are currently patrolled by more than 1,000 mostly unarmed private security guards as well as some armed off-duty city law enforcement officers.
A spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department declined to comment on The Banner’s findings.
Asked if Hopkins conducted its own analysis of violent crime during the pause, Bard, the vice president for public safety, said the school reports crime statistics to the federal government annually in compliance with the Clery Act, but would not say whether anyone had assessed or drawn any conclusions about the data. He added that he would expect crime rates since the start of the pandemic to trend downward.
The Banner examined crimes that occurred on Hopkins’ campuses, rather than near them, because state law prohibits members of the force under development from patrolling any property not owned or operated by the university. Still, on several occasions, Hopkins has cited a rash of worrisome off-campus crimes as proof of its need for private police.
Late last month, Bard warned students and staff about a “disturbing increase in serious violent incidents around our Baltimore campuses,” including several robberies, one abduction and one attempted abduction. He argued that a Hopkins police force, once implemented, would help the school “interrupt clusters of crime in our community.”
But five of the seven crimes Bard mentioned happened off campus, meaning they fall under the city police department’s jurisdiction.
Had Hopkins officers already been on the job, Senior Director of Public Safety Jarron Jackson acknowledged, they could not have responded to those crimes. But he said they could have supported Baltimore police in their response. Plus, crime near campus makes crime on campus more likely, he added.
“Criminals move back and forth,” Jackson said. “We get really focused on where the dot lands. That dot is a person. And we don’t want any more victims.”
Emerson, the Hopkins neighbor, said her husband was the victim of a robbery near their home earlier this year — and she still opposes the administration’s plan to create a police department. The Abell Improvement Association she leads is one of five neighborhood groups representing people who live near the Homewood campus that have called on Hopkins to scrap the plan.
Labeling the undergraduate campus and the communities that surround it unsafe when they’re not unfairly bolsters a narrative that Baltimore is uniformly dangerous, she said.
Emerson said she wishes Hopkins officials would listen when she tells them it’s the thought of private police patrolling her community with deadly weapons that scares her, not the threat of another robbery. “I find myself to be a pretty fearless individual,” Emerson said. “But I don’t trust Hopkins to vet these officers or hold them accountable if something goes wrong.”
Can private cops be held accountable?
Doubt that Hopkins will hold officers accountable for misconduct is widespread among opponents of the plan for a police force, who note that officers will be private workers who generally only answer to their employers.
Bard has dismissed this critique and vowed the force will be “highly accountable” to the public through body-worn cameras, annual reporting on use-of-force complaints and an oversight team called the Johns Hopkins Police Accountability Board. But the group’s independence and legitimacy were called into question during the pause after a high-profile member resigned and wrote an op-ed explaining why.
That disconnect is one of several things Hopkins officials have said about progress made during the pause in development of the police force that don’t check out.
Describing himself as a Black father of two young sons, J.D. McCormick, a director of finance on the Homewood campus, said he joined the accountability board because he was concerned about potential racial profiling and police brutality against people who “look like me and my sons.” He thought the board would be the best way to help shape the department and prevent it.
Instead, he said, the board had no mechanism to collect feedback and hardly ever met.
“The board has been unable to self-organize or aggressively assert its authority on the matter of policing at Hopkins,” McCormick wrote after his resignation. “Neither my influence as a senior Hopkins employee nor my passion as an outspoken Black man, father, and Baltimorean have been enough to move us collectively to action.”
The day after McCormick’s resignation in August 2020, Hopkins notified the remaining board members that their work would be paused, too, even though Hopkins doesn’t control the board, whose members are appointed by state lawmakers. What’s supposed to be a 15-person group has 11 current or pending vacancies. Hopkins is seeking applicants to fill the open seats.
Along with the accountability board, Bard has touted training for Hopkins’ existing security officers and million-dollar investments the school made in violence reduction programs as key components of his goal to boost campus safety overall.
But when asked by The Banner for details about the instruction provided and whether any of the investments showed promise, university officials struggled to answer.
For example, last year, more than 2,000 people — including new safety officers, existing personnel, and others at Hopkins — received one and a half hours of public safety training on average, according to data shared by Megan Christin, a spokesperson for the university. She could not, however, say how many people took classes on implicit bias and de-escalation techniques versus offerings on customer service or active-shooter response.
Christin said the data collection system that tabulates training hours can’t easily distinguish one type of training from another. The school did, however, make mandatory a two-hour course that teaches officers how to respond to someone experiencing a mental health or other type of crisis with sensitivity to past trauma.
The public is similarly in the dark about Hopkins’ campaign to address the root causes of violent crime in Baltimore, something school officials have touted as proof of their commitment to policing alternatives.
The university’s signature program is a $6 million “innovation fund” that offers grants to community groups trying to reduce housing insecurity or boost job training, among other goals. While the first round of grant recipients shows promise, it’s too soon to know whether any of the projects will be successful, said Vanya Jones, a Hopkins public health professor who helped select the winners.
“We are in the process of understanding whether they’re doing what they proposed to do. I can’t say more than that without undermining that work at a community level,” Jones said.
‘Unsupported by evidence’
The latest wave of resistance to Hopkins’ proposed police department includes protests led by the Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins and resolutions of opposition passed this fall by the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Faculty Senate, the Black Student Union, the African Students Association, and the South Asian Students at Hopkins group.
The declarations all criticize the university for refusing to listen to the people the new police officers are supposed to protect — members of the Hopkins community.
“Despite our concerns about the effects of crime on our community, we have continued to find arguments that this armed force will measurably improve the safety of members of our community unsupported by evidence,” the faculty senate resolution states.
Lester Spence, a professor who chairs the group’s committee on policing, has vigorously opposed Daniels’ plan since he first announced it. Spence helped draft the letter of concern Black faculty members sent Daniels four years ago, and he meets regularly with a group of staff representing all three campuses who are holding out hope that the plan can still be called off.
Like Emerson, Spence called the constant need to fight against a policy change that will make him feel unsafe exhausting. He keeps speaking out anyway because silence and inaction are certain not to yield the result he wants.
“We don’t have to just take policies that we think will be hurtful to the communities we care about,” said Spence, who is the longest-serving Black faculty member affiliated with the Homewood campus. “Hopkins is as much my university as it is the administration’s. Hopkins is my school, my yard. And I have a right to say what happens in my yard.”
Still, his fear of the worst-case scenario, that a Hopkins police officer who he expects to routinely harass people of color might one day kill someone unjustifiably, and then not be held accountable, looms large over his advocacy.
He recently flew to another country and unplugged partly to try to escape it, at least for a little while.
“When do I think about it? When am I not thinking about it?” said Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies. “I’m a full professor at one of the best universities in the world. I study this stuff. I know what’s right. And still, I consistently lose.
“They don’t listen,” Spence added. “Maybe they never will.”
An earlier version of this story reported that Johns Hopkins University’s system for tracking employee training cannot distinguish between courses taken by security officers and other types of workers. School officials said it can. That reference has been removed.
The story has been clarified to note that alumni and trustees who live out of state are some of the most enthusiastic backers of the school’s plan to develop a private police force. And the illustration was altered to clarify depictions of campus and neighborhood graffiti.