By Brandon Soderberg

YouTube video

A panicked Johns Hopkins University security official briefly reached over and tried to stop Jessa Wais from getting closer to Hopkins President Ronald Daniel’s campus residence as 100 or so students protesting JHU’s plan to establish its own private police force shouted “Ronnie D loves BPD.”

Wais, a senior at JHU and a member of Students For A Democratic Society, ignored the security guy, got behind him, and raised a sign that read “Who R U Here To ‘Protect’?” above her head.

The moment was small, but the guard, who had identified himself as security and told students he was “an ‘unbiased’ witness in case things go wrong,” is an apt metaphor for how JHU functions in Baltimore. For most of its history, Johns Hopkins, one of the city’s largest employers, has presented itself under the guise of objectivity and concern, while actively crafting policy and in many ways dominating residents. The proposed private JHU police force, which many students and residents near Hopkins’ campuses say would make them feel unsafe, places JHU’s troubling, paternalistic role over the city in stark relief.

“Not Tryna Get Shot,” one student’s sign read during the March 8 rally.

Students first learned of the bills—House Bill 1803 and Senate Bill 1241—sponsored by Delegate Cheryl Glenn and Senator Joan Carter Conway to “authorize private colleges and universities in Baltimore City to establish campus police forces based on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Mayor or the Police Commissioner of Baltimore City” in a March 5 email from President Daniels, who said JHU supported the legislation.

Within hours, students crafted a petition to oppose the bill. “We, the undersigned, oppose any proposal to give Johns Hopkins University the authority to create a private police force,” the petition, which has gathered nearly 2000 signatures, states. It lists a number of reasons to oppose the private police, citing  the potential for bringing violence to the campus, increased racial profiling and “broken windows”-style policing, threats to free speech during protest, and “continu[ing] Hopkins’ legacy of exploiting Baltimore citizens.”

“We developed the petition from a zero concessions stance—We want no private police categorically,” Mira Wattal said before the rally, which was organized by Students Against Private Police, a student group coalition consisting of Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Student Union, and nine others. “An increase of police does not increase safety.”

“We’d already be a crime-free city if that were the case,” Evan Drukker-Schardl added.

Although JHU representatives have said that the plan is in its introductory stage, the language surrounding it suggests a private police force is a foregone conclusion, with only the specific details of its operation up for debate.

“Our goal is to build a model university police department—one that reflects best practices, sets high standards, is accountable, reflects Johns Hopkins University values, and is specifically trained for and focused on the needs of the Johns Hopkins community,” said Dennis O’Shea, of the Office Of Communications for Johns Hopkins University, in a written statement. “We look forward to engaging our students, faculty, staff, and neighbors on how best to achieve that goal.”

Recently-appointed Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, who was challenged by city activists due to his involvement in three fatal shootings in 1995 and because of his veteran status in a notorious department that needs to shake off its old corrupt ways, is in favor of the bill.

“We fully support the creation of a Johns Hopkins University Police Department, just as we partner with other university police departments already established in Baltimore,” De Sousa said in a statement provided by the police. “And they couldn’t have picked a more suitable law enforcement professional as Melissa Hyatt who was recently appointed to oversee their full complement of security programs. This will be a great public safety partnership for many years to come and it’s good not only for Johns Hopkins but the city overall.”

De Sousa is referring to former BPD Colonel Melissa Hyatt, who left the department to be the Vice President of JHU security just two weeks before JHU’s private police plan went public. Criticisms of Hyatt echo those of De Sousa. Just as many in the city don’t want a veteran to restart the BPD, students don’t want a BPD veteran to start a JHU private police force.

“This is another example of the continued steps by Hopkins to distance itself from the community and make Baltimore more white and more rich,” Wattal said. “I think one of their first steps was hiring [Hyatt] and the second step was announcing they want to create their own police department.”

The rally was emceed by Jason Souvaliotis, who set the tone with a mix of unapologetic rhetoric and dark humor. He got the crowd to boo JHU’s board of trustees and led them in a chant of “bad for Baltimore, bad for Hop, pay taxes, not cops.”

Miranda Bachman, the first speaker, invoked the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, the lockdown of Harlem Park following police detective Sean Suiter’s death, referred to BPD as “pieces of shit,” and then shifted focus to criticisms of JHU and an acknowledgement of the primary safety concern for JHU students: sexual assault.

“Students are unsafe on campus because there are fraternities,” Bachman said. “Because this school won’t hold predators accountable for their crimes…Johns Hopkins is a danger.”

In the past week, two sexual assaults on the JHU campus—one on Feb. 2, another on Mar. 3— have been reported.

“Partnering with the Baltimore Police Department, arguably the most corrupt police department in the country, shows a complete disregard for students of color on this campus that would otherwise be brutalized if they lived just a few blocks down the street,” said Vice President of JHU’s Black Student Union, Chisom Okereke, referencing the already fraught relationship JHU has with nearby communities of color in Charles Village, Barclay, Greenmount, Waverly, and the medical campus in East Baltimore which increasingly encroaches on and gentrifies neighborhoods such as Midway East.

The connections between BPD corruption and campus security are not just talk. A 2015 organizational chart providing names and positions at Maryland Institute College of Arts (MICA) lists Momodu Gondo and Jemell Rayam, two of the eight federally-indicted members of the Gun Trace Task Force, as private security at MICA.

The role that Morgan State Police played along with BPD in the 2013 in-custody death of Tyrone West has been a flashpoint for activists for years. Last year, the West family received $400,000 in a settlement after suing the Baltimore Police and MSU police. One sign during the rally read “University cops killed Tyrone West.”

“It’s disturbing when you think about it just how many police forces are in Baltimore: the public schools systems have a police force, the MTA has a police force, universities like Morgan State have a police force,” said Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State. “Certainly, all people have a right to be safe and secure from violence and assaults, but it makes me wonder just how much we are more committed to policing instead of peacebuilding.”

The area around both Hopkins campuses is policed by JHU security and BPD. In Charles Village where JHU’s Homewood campus is located, there is also private security paid for by the Charles Village Community Benefits District, whose estimated security budget for patrol officers in 2018 is $339,000. And at March 12’s State of the City address, Mayor Catherine Pugh said that violence has been down in the city since November when coordination between police and other agencies began. Pugh also mentioned Michael Bloomberg’s five million dollars he provided to the Baltimore Police Department in December for new technology.

“Increased police presence in communities that have been over policed is a reactive measure that will only continue to create a divide between Hopkins and the community,” said Shane Bryan, President of the Ednor Gardens, Lakeside Civic Association. “As a leading institution in health and public health, we shouldn’t be seeking to ‘build a model university police department’ when we can lead the movement to address crime and violence by expanding upon our commitment to public health.”

When Meridian Howes of the Medical and Public Health school spoke during the rally, they stressed that JHU is refusing to use “scientific method” to come to a sound conclusion about police.

“[JHU] made the decision without evidence,” they said, referring to a March 7 forum at the medical campus where the mere perception of crime was cited as a partial reason for a private police force. Howes also noted that their own research involving the trans community contrasts with the BPD, which the 2016 Department Of Justice report observed, was involved in an ongoing pattern of “underlying unlawful gender bias” against the LGBTQ community.

Meridian mentioned Scout Schultz, a trans student shot and killed by the Georgia Institute of Technology police in 2017—one of many examples of campus police forces endangering, harming, and killing students.

“As a person of color and a queer person, I’m not generally in favor of increased police presence,” said Koye Berry. “There’s you know, a long history in this country and all around the world of that sort of thing having an improportionately negative effect on people who have minority status.”

“Hopkins did not consult the community, they did not consult the students, but they did consult the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago consulted the Bratton Group, which champions broken windows policing,” Wattal said.

The University of Chicago’s campus police has been shown to repeatedly, persistently practice racial profiling; in 2006, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a UCLA student was tased by campus police because he refused to show his campus ID; and there is the infamous image of Lt. John Pike, a University of California, Davis police officer pepper spraying student protesters, which Students Against Private Police used on the Facebook event page for the March 8 rally.

Locally, there was a non-fatal shooting by a MSU police officer in January 2018, and fatal shootings in December 2016 by a Coppin State University cop, and by a University of Maryland-Baltimore cop in June 2015.

“This is another example of Hopkins looking out for its own power, its own image, without being accountable. This could really be dangerous for students and for people of color in the city,” Drukker-Schardl said.

Others at the rally suggested JHU use the money it would cost to run a private police force towards something, anything, else. Rev. C.D. Witherspoon of the People’s Power Assembly demanded JHU pay a living wage to some of its workers such as custodians instead; others mentioned fostering more interaction with the community.

“There are so, so many ways that Hopkins can and should direct its resources to make Baltimore a better, healthier, and safer place,” Wais said wrapping up the rally. “Investing massive amounts of money into a private police force is not one of them.”

After Wais spoke, the group marched through the campus led by Karter James Burnett, who shouted “More police hurts the peace.” The protest moved through Gilman Hall with “1-2-3-4, reparations for Baltimore,” “JHU you own too much, Baltimore has had enough,” and “How do you spell racist? B-P-D,” echoing through the building. Then students went to President Daniels’ residence where the group lined up with signs and posed for a photo—and as Wais’ brief interaction showed, shook up security a bit.

“This all happened really quickly—Hopkins released the bill and it’s obvious they wanted to surprise us and we just wanted to tell them that we’re like, on top of our shit,” Burnett said, a bit out of breath from leading the march. “We’re not just gonna let you pop bills on us in the middle of the week and think that you’re gonna get something passed without community involvement.”

City Council was also taken aback by the bill. Councilperson Mary Pat Clarke said that she had not yet had time to read the legislation. And at March 12’s council meeting, Brandon Scott introduced a resolution “to require City Council involvement in the creation of police forces for private colleges in Baltimore” that was quickly adopted.

Hours before the council meeting—just one week after the bill was first announced—students organized a phone banking initiative.

“We’re phone banking for the Maryland Legislature, the Delegates and Senators who are on the judiciary committee because they’re the ones that are going to first vote on this—especially the delegates,” said Alicia Badea. “We wanna make sure that they know that Hopkins students are opposed to this and we were not consulted and there are people and their constituents here in Baltimore who are not for this.”

Spread across cafe tables were a list of phone numbers, plenty of snacks, and a script which students throughout the day read to representatives who answered the phone: “A private police force on Hopkins campuses will not make us safer and will only increase the disproportionate surveillance and targeting of black and brown students, staff, and community members.”

The judiciary committee is scheduled to hold a hearing for the bill in the House of Delegates on Friday, March 16, and students are scheduling rides up to Annapolis, Badea said. And at least one senator told students over the phone that she would not support the bill.

“We’ve gotten a good number who’ve picked up,” Badea said. “There’s been one, Senator Pulliam, she says she is in support of us and she opposes the bill. So yeah, we have her on our side already.’”

Pulliam could not be reached to confirm. Del. Glenn and Sen Conway, the bill’s sponsors did not respond to requests for comment by press time. But one thing was clear to the students.

“They’re annoyed, I think,” said one student who just got off the phone. “Which is a good thing.”

Additional reporting by Bashi Rose.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.