Abolish, Not Delay: Opposition to Proposed ‘Pause’ on Johns Hopkins Private Police Force Grows

Photo by Brandon Soderberg

Two weeks after Johns Hopkins University administrators announced what they called a two-year “pause” on a controversial plan to establish their own private police force, about 100 students, faculty and community members marched to the home of Hopkins President Ronald Daniels to tell him that this proposed pause is not enough.

Wearing masks and trying to keep six feet apart, demonstrators gathered on June 29 at Tubman Grove near Wyman Park Dell, holding up signs with familiar slogans like “NO JHU PRIVATE POLICE” and new messages like “ABOLISH, NOT DELAY” and “IN 2 YEARS, COPS WILL STILL BE KILLERS.”

Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies Lester Spence cited the reasons he has been opposed since Hopkins first announced plans for a private police force in March 2018.

“This would end up creating insecurity and making a number of staff, faculty and students feel unsafe,” Spence said, speaking into a microphone wrapped in plastic (to avoid contamination). “It would reproduce and crystallize the divide between Baltimore and Hopkins. It would double down on policing as a solution to a range of community problems.”

Hopkins Graduate student Erini Lambrides blasted Hopkins administrators for delaying rather than scrapping the plans amid a moment of national reckoning with the role of policing in society.

“We will be here from today to next year to the year after that, because when we say no private police, we mean no now, not in two years, not ever,” Lambrides said.

The crowd then marched to Daniels’ house on the Hopkins Homewood Campus to deliver an envelope containing a 6,000-signature petition circulated by a coalition of faculty which calls on Hopkins to abolish, not pause, the planned police force. 

As of last week, hundreds of faculty from across the university had signed the petition, as well as almost 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students, over 2,000 alumni and over 1,000 Baltimore residents. Over 50 groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU of Maryland, also endorsed the petition.

Outside Daniels’ house, protestors called on him to heed their demands, chanting, “Money for jobs, not police! Money for housing, not police!” 

The Baltimore Police Department’s Foxtrot helicopter flew overhead, briefly monitoring the 100 or so people. The petition, and a number of protest signs, were left on Daniel’s doorstep and taped to the front door and windows.

Hopkins President Ron Daniels announced the pause on June 12, three weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked an uprising against police violence across the country and broad public scrutiny of brutality and racism in policing. The decision follows two years of sustained opposition from a wide coalition of Hopkins and Baltimore community members who, among many organizing efforts, staged demonstrations at Hopkins with an unwavering demand: No private police. 

But while organizers view the pause as a minor victory—one gained through complex direct action including a sit-in which resulted in a number of students facing arrest—they also believe it is a tactic to dodge accountability and briefly placate critics whose arguments are now being mainstreamed as demands to “defund” or “abolish” police have replaced calls for simple reform.

In a statement to the Beat, Hopkins Assistant Vice President of External Relations Karen Lancaster wrote that the university is committed to being a leader in police reform.

“It is clear to us that the conversation about policing in this country is undergoing a fundamental shift,” Lancaster wrote. “Continuing to move forward at this time, without the benefit of the conversations, debates and reforms that will take place during the next two years, would do a profound disservice to our institution and our community.”

Chisom Okereke, a class of 2019 alumna who, as president of the Black Student Union (BSU), was involved in organizing protests against private police, expects the university to pick up where it left off once protests ease up and the students who originally organized the opposition graduate.

“Hopkins is an institution that will do what is in Hopkins’ best interest,” Okereke said. “It’s hard, seeing how the last two years with the police force have gone, to believe that it’s not optics for them.”

Participants in The Garland Sit-In and Occupation, a 35-day sit-in staged in Garland Hall, the university’s primary administrative building during April and May of 2019, condemned Hopkins for failing to value the safety of Black and brown students and Baltimoreans. They oppose policing of any kind, and are not willing to negotiate reforms for a police force that doesn’t even exist (the Beat has granted some of these participants anonymity due to Hopkins threatening discipline and even expulsion).

“They announced this delay not because they were listening to students, staff and faculty,” one participant told The Beat. “They’re just very good at PR and don’t want to look bad to the international community, especially with all these protests.”

Another described the delay as “opportunistic,” adding: “None of these statements made public by leadership actually show any kind of deep engagement with racial and structural equity on campus.”

Community organizer Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West was killed by Baltimore Police and Morgan State University police in 2013,  said Hopkins should have hit the pause button during the sit-in, if not before.

“They didn’t listen to us at all. We weren’t respected. They mistreated us, and now we’re supposed to buy this? No,” Jones said. “Police had my brother in a George Floyd situation back in 2013, and here we are in 2020. Do we need more police? Hell no we don’t.”

Jones organizes West Wednesday, a weekly series of demonstrations demanding justice for her brother Tyrone West. The Garland Sit-In and Occupation took up justice for Tyrone West as one of three core demands, alongside abolishing the private police and ending the university’s contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When they expired last fall, the university did not renew its contracts with ICE.

Judah Adashi, a member of the music composition faculty at Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute, was among the faculty who circulated the most recent petition. Adashi said Baltimore’s recent history of brutal policing, including the deaths of Tyrone West and Freddie Gray, should have given administrators reason enough to reconsider.

“The idea that Freddie Gray’s murder at the hands of six police officers five years ago would not provide a tipping point, and would not keep an initiative like this from getting off the ground, is just astonishing,” Adashi said. “We’re calling for the full abandonment of this initiative. We’re making it very clear that the pause that popped up as we were in this process is not a sufficient response to that call.”

Photo by Brandon Soderberg

Johns Hopkins University announced plans to create a private police force for its Baltimore campuses in March 2018. A number of student group leaders met the night it was announced to create the Students Against Private Police (SAPP) coalition. They drafted a petition which circulated the next morning and garnered almost 1600 signatures in two days. Less than a week after the proposal, over 100 students and community members marched to Daniels’ house in protest.

Students continued organizing in the weeks that followed, testifying in Annapolis against two bills which would have authorized Hopkins to create the private force. In a meeting with some faculty and administrators in mid-March, Adashi asked whether the plan could possibly be walked back, given that the legislation hadn’t passed yet. The answer he was given, he said, was, “that ship has sailed.”

Legislative deliberations of the bills halted at the end of March and organizers breathed a sigh of relief: “Seeing the swiftness and the effectiveness with which so many groups came together in opposition to the police force was just so incredible,” said Barae Hirsch, an early member of SAPP. “We felt the righteousness of that cause, and we also felt the power of organizing.”

The fight, it turned out, was far from over. Hopkins officials planned to gather more information and input on the proposal before introducing new bills in the 2019 legislative session. Hopkins officials established a number of community forums, which Hirsch criticized for being more like lectures where the case—and need—for a private police force was presented.

Okereke recalled attending a dinner with Daniels alongside a number of other Black students in November 2018, which she said devolved into him berating them.

“Any concern that we brought up about the police force was just shot down,” Okereke said. “Everything we’ve said has fallen on deaf ears and every conversation that they have invited us into — instead of an opportunity for discourse, it’s more of an opportunity for them to convince us on why they should have a police force.”

As new legislation was introduced in 2019, students continued to organize trips to testify in Annapolis. They also met with legislators whose support for the bills seemed uncertain. Despite the organizing, Maryland’s legislature passed Senate Bill 793, titled the “Community Safety and Strengthening Act,” on March 28, 2019.

According to Hopkins Assistant Vice President of External Relations Karen Lancaster, community engagement played a critical role in shaping final legislation that includes mechanisms for accountability, transparency and training. This would include training around implicit bias and de-escalation, publishing comprehensive data on policing practices and creating an accountability board of Hopkins affiliates and community members. 

The private police bill that passed also included commitments from the state and Hopkins to fund youth programs in the city. Those are not dependent on establishing a university police department and are not subject to the two-year pause.

“We have long advocated for a new accountable, transparent model of policing,” Lancaster wrote. “It is precisely for that reason that we opted to take a slow, deliberative and consultative approach to this endeavor, and to be sure we are building a department that exemplifies best practices in constitutional, community-oriented policing.” 

After weeks of lobbying and testifying ultimately failed to halt the legislation, organizers turned to direct action. About 30 students entered Garland Hall on April 3, 2019. They planned for a 24-hour sit-in, demanding a publicly-broadcast meeting with administrators. But administrators said they would not agree to these terms until the students left Garland. This created a stalemate.

The Garland Sit-In and Occupation emboldened opposition to the private police. The Student Government Association (SGA) passed a resolution supporting the demonstration on April 9, and a fact-finding report from the Homewood Faculty Assembly estimates that a few hundred students participated on a rotating basis. 

One participant said that the sit-in created a new sense of what Hopkins students could do when it comes to organizing and direct action.

“Students are ready to put their academic, professional and personal life on the line to fight for justice and equity on campus and in the community,” the participant said. “This is not an issue that just goes away once you get your silly piece of paper from the university. For me personally, I’m going to stay involved because I’ll outlast Daniels through this fight.”

That participant was one of four students arrested early in the morning of May 8, when administrators called in about 80 officers from the BPD, who broke through Garland’s glass doors and arrested students who refused to disperse. Though the charges were abated, administrators pressed forward with conduct hearings, which the participant said sought to make an example of students involved. They described an opaque investigation with arbitrary deadlines, which caused concerns about how the hearings would affect the students’ academic work. Though the students feared suspension or expulsion, they did not ultimately face these disciplinary actions.

Members of the Garland Sit-In and Occupation recalled a number of behaviors from Hopkins faculty and staff which gave them concerns about how a private police force would act towards students. On the first night of the demonstration, Director of Student Conduct Dana Broadnax took videos of sleeping participants with her personal cell phone and sent them to a group chat with other administrators, who would not assure demonstrators in writing that the videos had been deleted.

And on the final night, former Hopkins professor Daniel Povey attacked a number of protesters inside Garland. While protestors screamed for help, Hopkins security guards did not intervene, stating that their job was to protect Hopkins property. One participant filmed a guard grabbing them and knocking their phone out of their hand. They later reported the incident to the university’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), leading to another opaque investigation. 

According to that participant, OIE ultimately stated that the security officer in question had been disciplined, and recommended taking further concerns to the police. Povey was terminated later that summer and banned from the Hopkins campus.

Tawanda Jones decried the lack of accountability for actions taken against the private police protesters, but warned that speaking out against injustice often has dire consequences. She herself has faced threats, physical assault and had car tires slashed. During the sit-in, Hopkins representatives warned Jones that she might face legal consequences for “trespassing” if she joined the students in Garland Hall. She joined them anyway.

It was powerful, she said, to see a coalition of students working with community organizers and using their privilege at Hopkins to call for an end to the private police plan: “I felt compelled to let them know — don’t ease up,” Jones said. “You’re gonna lose a lot. This is not easy.”

While she will continue to organize, Jones worries that Hopkins will push a pro-police narrative on incoming students, who may see continued opposition as increasingly futile. 

Photo by Brandon Soderberg

The class of 2024 group chat has already been discussing the issue of policing at Hopkins, though, as well as the university’s strained history with Baltimore, according to an incoming freshman. Laís Santoro, a rising sophomore who has been involved in organizing on campus, recalled that Garland Hall was shut down when she visited campus before committing to Hopkins. She said that incoming freshmen have already asked her how to get informed and involved in opposing the private police.

“A lot of incoming freshmen are able to understand and contextualize this more, considering we have this uprising that’s going on and all these discussions about defunding police becoming mainstream,” Santoro said. “I’m hoping that over these next two years we can push Hopkins to just dispense with the idea.”

During the two-year pause period, Hopkins believes the university’s work in public health will inform discussion of police reforms on a national, state and local level. The university expects to benefit from “new norms and best practices,” including reexamining Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which protects police from investigations into official conduct. 

Santoro urged Hopkins to go beyond the delay, which she called “performative,” working instead with communities to address public safety without more police: “There’s already been so much conversation, and the university knows where we stand,” she said. “The time is now. They want to be leaders in public health? The murder of Black people is a public health issue.”

Barae Hirsch criticized framing the decision as a response to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. From the start, she said, administrators made it clear that they do not value Black lives.

“If they did, they would have listened to their Black students, their Black staff, their Black faculty and their Black community members the first time [the private police force was opposed],” Hirsch said. “They would have listened to them and the people standing in solidarity with them when we said that there are other better, more comprehensive and more sustainable solutions for this perception of crime.”

Okereke said Black alumni should help keep current students engaged in organizing. She recalled Black alumni sharing their experiences with racism at Hopkins at the BSU’s annual alumni dinner, noting that their memories of the 60s, 70s and 80s mirror the experiences of Black students today.

“Hopkins made us feel like our experience as Black students didn’t matter, that we didn’t have a place on campus and that we couldn’t call Hopkins home,” she said. “Because that sentiment is so pervasive among Black alumni, I think the issue of private police will always be something that will call us back.”

Class of 2017 alumna Tiffany Onyejiaka saw a resurgence of student activism on campus during and after the Uprising following Freddie Gray’s death. She said that this activism laid the groundwork for sustainable organizing against the private police plan, with outgoing organizers handing over knowledge and experience to incoming students. Onyejiaka, who was the 2016-17 BSU president, said that local and national protests against policing led students to scrutinize the ways Hopkins perpetuated systemic racism. Police brutality, she added, is just one effect of this system.

“It’s one strain of racism, but there are others,” Onyejiaka said. “When you start paying more attention to the core of what it’s from, you start realizing that a lot of the core similarities that lead to stuff like police brutality are the kinds of things that we’re seeing in our institutions.”

She shared repeated instances of racial profiling from security during her time on campus and recalled incidents which were needlessly escalated by calling security officers. A private force, she added, would intensify the possible negative outcomes of these encounters.

“We intend to explore alternative approaches to public safety that allow us to reduce our reliance on sworn policing to the greatest extent possible,” wrote Assistant Vice President of External Relations Karen Lancaster.

This, she explained, largely means focusing on the university’s existing security operations, with training on implicit bias, crisis intervention and de-escalation to bring officers in line with the tenets of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Administrators will continue to consult with a student advisory committee for security and money set aside for the police force will be reinvested in reducing contract security to “build a critical mass” of Hopkins security personnel with the aforementioned training.

Kwame Alston, who was senior class president and BSU president when Hopkins announced the private police plan in March 2018, called on Hopkins to invest in new approaches to public safety, rather than layering reforms on existing security.

Alston was open to reforms amid scrutiny of police brutality following the Baltimore Uprising but as police killings nationwide remain constant or increase despite reforms, he fully supports abolition, both at Hopkins and nationwide: “After years of seeing that not working, I’m definitely an abolish the police type of person,” he said. “You cannot reform the system, so defunding is step one and abolishing is the end.”

A Baltimore native, Alston had several negative interactions with police and Hopkins security during his time on campus. In his freshman year, Hopkins security let BPD officers enter his dorm room without warning to question him about a home invasion which had occurred at his family’s home weeks earlier. Later that summer, as a program intern for Hop-In, which supports first generation and low income students, Hopkins security called BPD officers to escort Alston out of the Hop-In dorm after he stayed up with the students past curfew playing Super Smash Bros.

In his senior year, more than one security guard denied him entry to the BSU space in one of the freshman dorms. While he didn’t carry a Hopkins ID, he had a key to the space and logged into the online system to prove that he was a student. Despite this, one guard continued to insinuate that he wasn’t. One of these incidents occurred just weeks after Daniels promised him that a Hopkins police force would “get it right.”

“The only way to get rid of this type of institutionally-sponsored violence is to not have a police force,” Alston said. “I just distinctly know that I’ve experienced the violence of the system that they’re trying to implement, and I know that it’s not the answer.”

Rising sophomore Tomisin Longe, a Nigerian international student, said they first thought a private police force would keep campus safe. However, their opinion changed after listening to the concerns of protestors.

They said that many students of color share a sense that the decision to pause the private police force was not made with their safety in mind, or else the university would have heeded the calls of organizers to abandon the plan last year. 

“The natural course of action for the university, I would have thought, would be to back off and reevaluate what their stance was on policing,” Longe said. “Now would be the perfect time to just get rid of it, but they’re only pushing it back two years.”

Many have suggested that the two-year pause gives the university breathing room to deal with the financial impact of COVID-19. In her statement, Lancaster wrote that budgetary constraints and the decision to pause the police force are unrelated: “The decision to pause our efforts will not produce significant savings in the short term because the university will still need to budget for extensive security operations on our campuses,” Lancaster wrote. “The future JHPD was always contemplated as a small addition (about 100 people) to the overall security operation (around 1,100 people).”

Some have wondered whether the university’s search for a Vice President for Security was another factor in the decision to pause. Melissa Hyatt, a 20-year veteran of the BPD, took this position in April 2018 and left in the summer of 2019 to become the chief of police in Baltimore County. After her departure, Hopkins created a search committee to find her replacement. SGA Executive President Sam Mollin hopes to secure an SGA seat on that search committee, which only includes one undergraduate. 

Asked whether administrators would consider abandoning the plan, Lancaster wrote that they would work to make sure that the existing Hopkins security lives up to their aspirations for the private police force: “In making future determinations about the JHPD, we will continue to be guided and persuaded by the best available evidence for which interventions reduce violent crime in our communities in both the near term and long term, and which do so in ways that are consistent with our values as a university and community anchor,” Lancaster wrote.

Tawanda Jones said that if Hopkins wants to lead long-term solutions to crime in Baltimore, it should reinvest the money for a police force into job creation programs.

“All the community wants is a fair chance, a fair opportunity, the same chance that they’ll give somebody with a different skin color. They want that same opportunity to have greatness,” she said. “I would never ask for more police, because right now every time you call 911 it’s like playing Russian roulette. You never know. At the end of the day, our lives are in their hands.”

Even if it’s not the full stop organizers have demanded since March 5, 2018, Kwame Alston counts the pause as a win.

“It’s not very often that organizers and activists win against a billion dollar corporation like Johns Hopkins,” he said. “It’s just a two year pause, but at the same time I was just really happy to celebrate any type of win, because that gives us two years to organize and shut this shit down.”

Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg.

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