Hopkins tries—likely in vain—to sway Remington residents on private policing plan

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Hopkins officials (at center) speak with members of the Greater Remington Improvement Association. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Standing before about two dozen people and a handful of Johns Hopkins University officials on Tuesday night, Phong Le said he didn’t get to chat with his Remington neighbors before learning of the institution’s plan to create its own private police force.

That’s because two bills to do just that were introduced in the General Assembly on March 5 with little public discussion.

“The community should be engaged early and often in matters of something as important as community policing, something with the potential to transform this community for better or worse, depending on how it’s implemented,” Le, a board member for the Greater Remington Improvement Association, told officials at the neighborhood group’s monthly meeting.

For well over an hour, Hopkins brass—mainly university vice president of finance and administration Daniel Ennis—talked with GRIA members and residents about the university’s policing plans. Maryland law allows public institutions—Morgan State, Coppin State and the University of Maryland offer examples—to have a fully empowered on-campus police department, but Hopkins is pushing a new legislation proposed jointly by Del. Cheryl Glenn and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, which the university helped write, to give private institutions the same freedom.

Echoing Le’s comments, Remington dwellers said the sit-down would have meant more if it had taken place before the bills were introduced. Upon learning of the legislative maneuver earlier this month, GRIA’s board voted to oppose the plan altogether at their last meeting.

(The neighborhood’s other resident association, the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, hasn’t responded to an emailing asking if it has taken a stance on Hopkins’ plan.)

Hopkins’ director of local and community affairs, Jennifer Melke, said Tuesday that GRIA is not alone. Fewer than five neighborhood associations around the city have backed the plan, she said.

Students and faculty have also come out in full force against it, launching a petition that supporters say has garnered around 2,700 signatures, holding demonstrations on-campus and testifying against the proposal in Annapolis.

And yet, even acknowledging all of this, “we are getting a ton of positive response,” Ennis said.

Asked who he means, exactly, university officials cited support from anonymous respondents submitted through an online feedback portal. University vice president of communications Susan Ridge told the room those people are choosing to remain nameless because the vocal opposition is “having a silencing effect on people that are for it—but we are getting information via folks contacting us on this website.” (Melke added that individuals, particularly members of public safety committees in benefits districts, such as Midtown and Charles Village, have also given their support.)

Seizing an opportunity to level with Remingtonians, Ennis explained the university’s rationale for pushing for its own police department. It was “the alarm in our community” about ballooning crime last year that spurred the idea, he said. (He mentioned earlier on that the Hopkins population is “highly attractive to the criminal element in terms of kids being distracted, in terms of kids having resources on them.”)

“We really reached a point where we had to ask ourselves if we were doing enough, what we could be doing better,” he said. 

Officials consulted with police department-equipped peer universities—”they were horrified” by the crime issues at Hopkins, Ennis said—starting in November and continuing through the winter. In February, with the legislative session already underway, Hopkins’ board of trustees discussed and ultimately endorsed a plan for a JHU police department. Hopkins linked up with Baltimore lawmakers, and by early March, the bills had been introduced in both houses.

Several weeks later, under pressure from students, faculty, staff and neighborhoods to drop the plan altogether, Hopkins and lawmakers are rolling back parts of their bill, Ennis said. He passed around a map that showed he called the soon-to-be-amended bill’s “seriously constricted” scope of policing coverage.

Another amendment would have Hopkins set up a police advisory board, comprising faculty, staff and community members in Homewood and East Baltimore. The board would hold open hearings around “issues of policy activity,” and publish an annual report on the department, he said.

The amended bill would also let “non-police university officials” partake in misconduct hearings for officers accused of wrongdoing. However, Ennis said he is “sure that [will get] challenged along the way” because of a potential conflict with Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which protects officers from facing discipline from civilian review boards.

Remington residents still had questions, many of them about the school’s priorities, and the lack of prior communication with residents living in the school’s footprint. Some questioned whether the police department’s jurisdiction would expand off-campus in the event of a pursuit; others worried it would depend on the Baltimore Police Department, and its documented issues with unconstitutional and discriminatory policing, and ongoing court-ordered reform, to train officers.

Some were simply alarmed by the idea of a heightened police presence in their neighborhood.

Sergio España said crime issues in Baltimore are “not about more policing,” but about a lack of resources for citizens, and mentioned that Hopkins’ own Bloomberg School of Public Health has researched violence as a public health issue, rather than solely a policing one.

“It’s just weird…that we have such a highly intellectual organization that in many ways is improving and supporting city in terms of employment, in terms of education, also engaging in efforts that are simply counterintuitive to their own findings,” España said.

K.C. Kelleher, another resident, highlighted how Hopkins typically engages with neighborhoods on employment, anti-violence and community-organizing initiatives, but hasn’t on the topic of self-policing: “From no perspective does it make sense…we work with you on a daily basis, and this is like very out of the blue.”

Robert Lessick, a senior lecturer at Hopkins who’s lived in Remington for nine years, told Ennis, “I don’t see how you can effectively police a community when there’s so much distrust. It would seem to make more sense, if this is good for the community, to build the support for the next year, re-introduce it in the next session.”

Jed Weeks said a lack of any memorandum of understanding with neighborhoods prior to the bills being drawn up means that at this point, “the only people at the negotiating table are people who want this thing.”

Ennis acknowledged JHU is “playing a big game of catch-up” with communities, and even that neighborhood-level discussions like Tuesday night’s don’t lend residents any certain power.

“We’re making process commitments, not delegation-of-authority commitments,” he said.

Even if the bills don’t pass—the General Assembly’s 2018 session wraps up April 9, and neither measure has advanced to a full vote in either house—Ennis says the university still envisions getting its own police force in the future.

“We really believe fundamentally for the long-term health of our institution, our ability to attract the best students, faculty and staff, that we need to have this.”

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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1 COMMENT

  1. // The amended bill would also let “non-police university officials” partake in misconduct hearings for officers accused of wrongdoing. However, Ennis said he is “sure that [will get] challenged along the way” because of a potential conflict with Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which protects officers from facing discipline from civilian review boards. //

    You know what, that’s a REASON NOT TO START YOUR OWN POLICE DEPARTMENT until you change that law.

    Hopkins, you have enough sway with the legislators that you can just get your private police bill introduced by snapping your fingers without even telling anyone else about it.

    How about you use that lobbying power to amend or abolish the LEOBOR, and after that we can maybe _talk_ about you starting your own police force.

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