Hopkins Police Force Measure Advancing

Demonstrators opposing the bill allowing Johns Hopkins University to establish its own private police force outside the State House Thursday. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Johns Hopkins University is poised to gain the authority it needs to arm the police force that protects its campuses and medical buildings.

In a big win for one of the state’s most prestigious employers, the House of Delegates on Thursday voted overwhelmingly in favor of Senate Bill 793, the “Community Safety and Strengthening Act,” known universally in the State House as “the Hopkins bill.”

The vote was 94-42.

The tense and months-long debate over JHU’s request for firearms-carrying police personnel pitted advocates of safer streets in crime-plagued Baltimore against community leaders concerned about “over-policing.”

The legislation appeared to divide the city delegation along generational lines, with older and more veteran lawmakers generally supporting the bill, and younger and more progressive legislators voting against it.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D), head of the city’s House delegation, told colleagues near the end of debate that she was “proud of my green vote.”

“I’ve been in Baltimore all my life. I know the history of Johns Hopkins Hospital all too well,” she said. “Our crime rate is off the chains.”

“The root causes of poverty is something we must address. But what we also must address is the fact that people don’t feel safe — the people who work at Hopkins, the students who go to Hopkins, the patients.”

House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), whose grandson was killed by gunfire, said the crime problem in the city is “very serious and quite frightening.”

He called Hopkins “an institution that sits around danger and whose patients and whose workers are in danger. Let’s protect these people.”

But the proposal to allow the institution’s officers to carry weapons generated persistent pushback.

On Thursday morning, a small group carried a sign that said “#No Private Police” to the State House steps. The floor debate was briefly interrupted when protesters began chanting “no private police” in the House gallery.

“We are talking about a fearful community, a community who is afraid of what may happen if this institution has a police force versus using the tools in their toolkit that they are known internationally for,” said Del. Regina R. Boyce (D-Baltimore City), a first-term lawmaker.

“Folks, don’t believe that more police is the solution,” said Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore City), who was appointed to the chamber in 2016. “They believe that investing in our communities is part of the solution. Supporting this bill will set Baltimore back in terms of our progress.”

In January, during a visit to Maryland, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Hopkins alumnus, called it “ridiculous” that Hopkins officers aren’t armed.

“One of the things I do hear all the time from people who are trying to decide where their kids are going to go to college, they are worried very much about the crime rate, and when they want to go to a hospital, they worry about the crime rate,” Bloomberg told reporters.

A billionaire philanthropist and a staunch advocate of gun control, Bloomberg is a major donor. The JHU School of Public Health bears his name.

Officers at public colleges and universities in Maryland have long been armed. The Hopkins proposal was controversial in part because it is a private institution.

If the House and Senate can reconcile differences between the two versions of the legislation, it will go to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) for his signature, which is expected.  

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