Several dozen students and a few faculty members from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) gathered at the school’s Homewood campus on Feb. 13 to protest Maryland General Assembly legislation that would authorize the university to establish a private police department.
The rally, which lasted less than an hour, was peaceful, with chants such as “Safe for whom?” and “Say it loud, say it clear, private cops aren’t welcome here” were shouted between speakers. Associate Professor of Political Science Lester Spence, leaders from the JHU Black Student Union and JHU sophomore Bentley Addison, an active member of Students Against Private Police (SAPP) and Hopkins Hillel, were among the speakers.
In addition to Addison, several other Jewish students voiced concerns over what they consider a continuation of the university’s militarization, citing the school’s contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and an anxiety that a private police force might target black students on campus as well as black residents from surrounding communities.
Addison read a statement on behalf of Roxie Herbekian, the president of UNITE HERE Local 7, a union whose members work in food service outlets on the JHU campus.
“A number of our members and other service workers on campus who are predominantly black have been stopped by officers and asked where they are going and why they are on campus,” Addison read through a megaphone. “We know where to complain if Baltimore City Police are out of line. They work for the public and they are accountable to our elected officials. The police commissioner works for a democratically elected mayor. With the proposed private police force, there is no accountability to the community.”
After the rally, Addison made a connection between his activism and his Judaism, saying, “The history we’ve endured as a people, when we’ve experienced all this oppression and hardship during our history, that gives me the urge to prevent that for everyone.”
Last spring, the university requested legislation that would authorize the establishment of a private police department, but the bill never made it to a vote. Legislation for the 2019 session was introduced in both the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates early this month, and both chambers are scheduled to hold hearings on their bills on Feb. 22.
According to JHU junior and SAPP organizer Evan Drukker-Schardl, SAPP was formed immediately after the university announced plans to develop a private police department last spring.
“SAPP started the day we got the campus-wide email,” said Drukker-Schardl, who is also active in Hopkins Hillel. “A group of student leaders, myself included, got together on campus and said, “What are we going to do?”
Last semester, the JHU Student Government Association held an omnibus referendum with eight questions about issues impacting students. Although more votes are needed before the results are made official, a Feb. 6 email to SGA members showed that 75 percent of students surveyed thus far oppose the police force. Drukker-Schardl believes that more police will not necessarily mean there will be less crime.
“The reason why a lot of people support a private police force is a fear of crime, a fear of violence and a desire to stop those things. But this simplistic equation that more policing equals less violence just isn’t true,” said Drukker-Schardl. “More policing isn’t what stops crime. Stopping the root causes of crime is what stops crime.”
Before the start of the 2019 General Assembly session, the university provided legislators with the findings from a study on improving public safety on and around Johns Hopkins University campuses. One of the conclusions was to hire “approximately 100 officers (over three to five years) to replace the armed off-duty Baltimore City police officers and sheriff’s deputies who are currently working as a part of the Johns Hopkins security operation,” said a letter to the JHU community from JHU President Ronald J. Daniels and Johns Hopkins Medicine Dean of the Medical Faculty Paul B. Rothman.
The bills introduced this year have added requirements for “certain appropriations for certain Baltimore City youth programs; establishing the Law Enforcement Cadet Apprenticeship Program to provide young individuals with the opportunity to begin a career in law enforcement.”
In an email to the JT, Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41), a co-sponsor of the House bill, said that “the concerns expressed by students and neighborhood residents have resulted in a better bill.”
“After much thought, I decided to co-sponsor this bill,” Rosenberg wrote. “It strikes the proper balance between the need to provide a safe environment on the Hopkins campus and in nearby communities and to establish appropriate regulation of this private police force so that it acts in a constitutional manner and does not target black students and members of the surrounding community.”
A week before the Feb. 13 protest, there was another rally on the Hopkins campus to protest the contracts between ICE and the university. Graduate student Joanna Behrman, an organizing member of Teachers and Researchers United, a union of graduate student workers at JHU, was at both protests.
For Behrman, a member of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebel, the issues are not unrelated, recognizing that community safety is the common undercurrent of both the university’s endeavors. She does question, however, whether or not the private police and contracts with ICE actually will make campus safer, or merely provided the illusion that it is safer.
“Baltimore is not the predominantly white uniform face that Hopkins would like to project on its brochures and to the public at large,” she said. “It feels as though, ‘Oh if we make the campus feel safe, or if we project the idea of safety, students will want to come here and parents will want to donate.’ But it’s a false sense of safety and a false sense of security. And of course we have to ask ourselves, ‘safe and secure for whom?’”