Opinion: Public Safety, Not Private Safety

The Maryland General Assembly is debating a bill that would allow Johns Hopkins University to have its own private police force. This issue is personal to me as one of about 50,000 Marylanders employed by Hopkins.

But this debate is relevant to more than just those of us who work for or interact with Johns Hopkins institutions. With Hopkins reporting more than 95,000 inpatient discharges and 1.2 million outpatient visits from campuses across the state of Maryland, the number of people in the region subject to a private police force jurisdiction in some way, shape or form is significant.

Hopkins and many others have chosen to frame the conversation as a “public safety” issue. However, the question at stake here is: should government cede critical constitutional powers, subject to checks and balances, to loosely regulated private entities? I submit that it should not. We need public safety, not private safety.

Americans have witnessed the government ceding its authority in many areas, to the great detriment of our society. We saw attempts to privatize war with the rise of Blackwater and other mercenary businesses. We have similarly seen the rise of private prison complexes. In another sphere, the unchecked abuse of mandatory arbitration clauses by banks has limited the public’s access to courts.

These examples may not seem relevant on the surface, but the common thread that runs through them is that government passed on its core duties to an entity with a contrary set of interests. They all began as a well-intentioned shortcut, yet the fallout has been disastrous. The country has yet to recover from Blackwater’s grave human rights violations in Iraq. Private prisons have encouraged mass incarceration. Mandatory arbitration clauses have weakened protections.

These destructive policies are a result of sustained lobbying efforts by well-heeled interests and have resulted in a disproportionate and adverse impact on the citizens who have no voice or economic power. While one can try to point to some individual success stories, moving core government functions into the sphere of private enterprise is by and large bad public policy. A Hopkins private police force would be yet another step in this slow march toward the death of democracy in this country.

Johns Hopkins and its board of trustees are not answerable to the public. Regardless of how many “checks and balances” that Hopkins may put into place, a private Hopkins police force will always put the interests of Johns Hopkins over those of the greater Baltimore community. The institution’s relationship with Baltimore City’s minority communities is already on shaky ground. Baltimore’s historically high crime rate, frustrating not only for the students, staff and visitors of Johns Hopkins, but to the city’s businesses and residents at large, is no excuse to pass a corporate stand your ground law.

There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. Mayor Catherine Pugh just held an exhaustive search and recruited Michael Harrison as Baltimore City’s next police commissioner. Harrison successfully led New Orleans through a similar time in its own history.

City and state public officials and Johns Hopkins should work together to strengthen the police chief’s hand and give him breathing room. This is not the time to chip away at our government institutions and threaten our democracy by privatizing our public safety officials.

–Sachin Hebbar

The writer is an employee of Johns Hopkins University and the founder of Indivisible North Baltimore County.

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