My testimony opposing JHU’s private police bill

Testimony Opposing HB1094 / SB793
Maryland House and Senate Judiciary Committees
Corey Payne, Graduate Student at Johns Hopkins University
February 22, 2019

My name is Corey Payne. I am a sociology Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University, an alumnus of JHU’s undergraduate program, and a six-year resident of Baltimore’s 43rd district. I am testifying today to strongly urge the delegation to oppose HB1094/SB793. Private institutions, no matter their import, should not be permitted to establish armed private police forces.

As a student, my university has encouraged a sense of solidarity with my peers and my Baltimore neighbors that leads me to have grave concerns about the marked increase in danger for students of color, non-affiliate community members, and the majority Black service work force at Hopkins. Despite promises that the JHU private police force would overcome implicit biases, I have seen no evidence of JHU’s ability to accomplish this with other affiliates (such as staff, faculty, and students) despite their many years of efforts. I fear that a private police force would unduly target individuals who did not “appear to belong” to the Hopkins community. I have witnessed JHU security ask a Black visiting faculty member why he was in his office after business hours. I remember receiving a “shelter in place” order on the day after the first protests following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, when three non-affiliated Black boys with bicycles dared to wander onto our “open” campus. I remember sitting in meetings following this incident in the Office of Multicultural Affairs where my Black friends and peers discussed the need to wear JHU-logoed shirts and sweatshirts to avoid similar encounters. As a student, I do not trust Johns Hopkins to create a private police force that would overcome racial profiling.

As a social scientist, my university has taught me to value evidence and reject the idea that the simplest solution is always the best one. While my own research is not on policing, this bill has forced many of us to read more deeply about crime-prevention and police. There is no scholarly consensus that increasing the number of police increases the safety of residents. In most crimes, police are not present until after the incident is over. Visible police presence generally focuses on minor crimes that do not harm individuals but offend the sensibilities of property-owners. Moreover, the largest proportion of crimes involving JHU affiliates are alcohol violations and sexual assault. These crimes are largely perpetrated by JHU affiliates against JHU affiliates. The university largely frames this private police force as if it were guarding a fortress (JHU) against an enemy (Baltimore), when the evidence does not support that perspective. Despite JHU’s fear-mongering, the public data available shows a decrease in crime around both the Homewood and East Baltimore campuses. As a social scientist, it is not clear to me that drastic solutions such as this one need are needed—or even that there is a crime problem to be solved.

As a researcher, my university has taught me the importance of ethical conduct, of the unbiased presentation of evidence, and of good faith interactions. In this regard, I have been disappointed to see Johns Hopkins fail to live up to the standards it expects of its students and researchers. The university administration has continued to publicly declare that it has received “mostly positive feedback” on this bill, despite overwhelming opposition. 75% of undergraduates oppose the bill, according to a poll by the student government. Over one hundred faculty members have signed a letter in opposition. Student organizers have over 2,600 signatures on a petition. One large on-campus labor union and the plurality of adjacent neighborhood associations oppose this measure. The administration cites a single survey of only 96 individuals (students, staff, faculty, and community residents) to support its claim to “largely positive feedback.” That’s bad research practice. At forums which JHU purportedly held to discuss this police force proposal, there was little open discussion. Johns Hopkins instead used these events to try to sell community members and affiliates on the idea of a private police force. Yet now, JHU cites these as listening sessions—as if the university leaders’ minds were not already made up a year ago. What’s more, the decision to pair state authorization of this private police force with state funding for youth programs is cynical and deceitful. This money would fund anchor institutions (like JHU) and only indirectly fund Baltimore’s children. Any expansion of Johns Hopkins power—such as the establishment of a private police force—should be accompanied by an expansion of Johns Hopkins’ duties to the community. That starts with paying taxes to fund programs like these. Johns Hopkins University has acted with bad research practice, with disingenuity, and with bad faith. As a researcher, I’m compelled to condemn my university’s conduct.

Finally, as a citizen of Baltimore, my largest concerns come from the privatization of state functions and the lack of accountability to the community. This bill, as written, is anti-democratic. The bill does not provide any true measures to hold JHU accountable to the communities it will be policing. The university will appoint the overwhelming majority of the members to the so-called accountability board. The board itself, as written, is 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 JHU—or abolish the private police force—if it fails to comply with any of the specifications in this bill. Private institutions like Hopkins are not compelled to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, and recent scandals such as the failure to address reports of sexual assault demonstrate JHU’s inability to faithfully report data. Perhaps most stunning about this bill is the remarkable lack of clarity regarding the boundaries of operation for this private police force. The bill’s language is imprecise and, if Clery Act boundaries are followed, 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 board of trustees. As a citizen, I strongly oppose a panel of out-of-state multi-millionaires dictating Baltimore’s policing policies.

In the six years that I have been a student at Johns Hopkins, I have watched my university make 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. I believe this bill is another example of Johns Hopkins staking a claim on the wrong side of history. In the end, this bill 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. While I appreciate the good things Johns Hopkins does, I cannot in good conscious trust my university with an armed private police force. As a student, a social scientist, a researcher, and a citizen, I strongly urge all representatives—especially my own from the 43rd district—to do the right thing for Baltimore and oppose this bill. Thank you.


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