Johns Hopkins’ “troubled history” with Baltimore disqualifies its private police proposal

Photo credit: Students Against Private Police

A recent article by Antero Pietila — author of the expansive The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins — outlines what he calls Johns Hopkins’ “troubled” history with East Baltimore, chronicling from the 1950s when thousands of homes of Black Baltimoreans were demolished and Hopkins earned the nickname “the Plantation,” to the 1970s when police refused to respond to distress calls from Black neighborhoods adjacent to Hopkins Hospital, to the 2000s when the East Baltimore Development Initiative (EBDI) dispossessed 740 families.

Based on this history, Pietila acknowledges that the opposition to Johns Hopkins private police proposal is grounded in fears of racist profiling and the potential for harassment targeting Black and Brown affiliates and community members. He then proceeds to explain how “arbitrary policing is nothing new to the Hopkins area.”

The story in this op-ed and the history uncovered in Pietila’s most recent book clearly spell out the history of distrust between Baltimore and Johns Hopkins.

But to the surprise of many, Pietila ends the piece by concluding that, “despite [this] troubled history,” JHU’s private police proposal “is not an unreasonable request. Hopkins is in a tough business: it has to re-earn its reputation as a top medical center every day.”

With respect, Mr. Pietila is wrong.

It is the very history that he uncovers (only to dismiss) that disqualifies Johns Hopkins’ private police proposal. As we see every day in Baltimore and around the country, a prerequisite of effective policing is trust. And as Mr. Pietila expertly outlines, Johns Hopkins has a long history of betraying the trust of its neighbors and of Baltimore writ large.

But Hopkins’ “troubled history” with Baltimore is not a thing of the past. Johns Hopkins continues to betray our trust with its conduct in pushing this private police proposal. By attaching the authorizing bill to funding for community programs, by holding listening sessions that were little more than propaganda forums, and by pushing online advertisements that deceivingly change the definition of the word “private,” Hopkins has acted with nothing but bad faith throughout this entire process.

In Pietila’s own argument, this betrayal of trust is clear: JHU needs private police in order to “re-earn its reputation as a top medical center…” This argument lays bare what the opposition to this private police proposal has been saying for over a year: this is little more than a PR stunt designed to calm the fears of a largely white and out-of-state parent, alumni, and donor network. Concerns for Baltimore’s citizens are secondary, if they’re even considered.

Johns Hopkins has not only continually failed to earn the trust of the citizens of Baltimore. In recent years, JHU has betrayed the trust of its students and workers by (among other things) resisting calls for a living wage for its security contractors, by hiring union-busting consultants to fight their nurses, by failing to respond adequately to the concerns of Black students, and by mishandling cases of sexual assault.

It’s for this reason that the opposition among JHU affiliates is steep — 75% of Homewood undergraduates expressed opposition in a student government organized referendum, 53% of School of Public Health master’s students are opposed, both the undergraduate and graduate student governments voted against the proposal, over 100 faculty members penned a letter in opposition, student groups have collected more than 2700 signatures on a petition, and campus labor unions UNITE HERE Local 7 and National Nurses United testified against the authorizing bill.

There are many reasons to oppose this private police proposal, as Quinn Lester outlines in his recent op-ed. But underlying them all is this lack of trust — grounded in historical trauma but kept alive by Hopkins’ everyday behavior — between the communities who would be policed and the private entity doing the policing.

The authorizing bill, as written, is anti-democratic. Johns Hopkins will appoint the overwhelming majority of the members to the so-called accountability board. The board itself would be largely toothless — only able to suggest changes to JHU’s private police force and without any means to oversee or enforce the conduct of officers. There is no mechanism to sanction or punish Hopkins — or abolish the private police force — if it fails to comply with any of the specifications in this bill.

Perhaps most stunning about this proposal is the remarkable lack of clarity regarding the boundaries of operation for this private police force. The bill’s language is imprecise and would allow for Hopkins to police the city largely without limits, as JHU purchases new properties each year. In truth, this private police force would be accountable only to the university president and the unelected, out-of-state, multimillionaire board of trustees.

These are just some of the reasons that nearly every adjacent neighborhood association, the Baltimore NAACP, and the ACLU oppose this private police bill.

In the past decade alone, my university has made harmful decisions regarding some of the most pressing issues of our time. On workers’ rights, on climate change, on immigration, on addressing racism, and on justice for sexual assault victims, Johns Hopkins has time and again decided to take the expeditious and lucrative road at the expense of its students, workers, and neighbors. This private police proposal is another example of Johns Hopkins staking a claim on the wrong side of history — a history that Mr. Pietila has expertly uncovered for us.

In the end, this private police proposal amounts to JHU saying: “Trust us.” Trust us to be accountable. Trust us to overcome racism. Trust us to carry guns. Trust us to respect the citizens of Baltimore and their rights. Anyone who understands the “ghosts” in Johns Hopkins history should have a hard time doing so. I cannot in good conscious trust my university with an armed private police force. I urge everyone to read Mr. Pietila’s book and ask themselves: Can you?

Corey Payne is a Ph.D. student in sociology and an alumnus of Johns Hopkins University.

Sociology Ph.D. student. Baltimore transplant.