Bill Seeks Expanded Powers for Morgan State Police

A statue of Frederick Douglass in front of Holmes Hall at Morgan State University. Morgan State photo

One year after major controversy enveloped legislation to create a private police force at Johns Hopkins University, a late-filed measure in the House of Delegates would expand the potential powers of the police at another Baltimore-based university.

Members of the Morgan State University Police Force would have the authority to use their official powers off-campus at the request of the mayor of Baltimore or the police commissioner under a proposal sponsored by nine state lawmakers who represent the city.

House Bill 1640, sponsored by Del. Curt Anderson (D), would create an additional exception to existing law, which limits university police officers’ authority to the school’s campus.

Currently, Morgan State officers may only police on property that is owned or leased by the school unless officers are in pursuit of a suspected offender or they’re authorized by the governor.

HB 1640 would grant officers the ability to exercise police power off-campus if requested or authorized to do so by the mayor or commissioner.

“It’s another crime-fighting measure that I like,” said Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “I’m all for doing anything to make Baltimore safer.”

Larry Jones, a Morgan State University vice president, said the legislation would extend campus protections to the increasing number of students who live off campus.

“The safety of Morgan’s students is paramount, and this proposed legislation is of enormous importance in this effort,” he said. “Due to on-campus housing constraints, we currently have more than 1,500 Morgan students that reside in housing within a two-mile radius of the university and our students living off-campus are not immune to the challenges often faced by neighboring communities or their residents.”

Jones said the legislation would put the authority of Morgan’s campus police in line with what’s permitted in the vicinity of other University System of Maryland campuses.

“Having the jurisdiction to police the areas where Morgan students live off-campus, and with the support of our neighboring community associations, the university will be able to provide greater protection and enhance safety for those traveling to and from campus,” he said. 

The bill was filed after the deadline and was referred to the House Rules Committee, which voted to re-refer it to the House Judiciary Committee. As of late Wednesday, there was no fiscal or policy note attached to the measure.

In 2019 state lawmakers granted a request from Johns Hopkins University to create a police force with armed officers.

The measure was highly controversial, as critics expressed fears of armed officers patrolling on and around the school’s campuses to protect students and staff but not the surrounding community. The city’s legislative delegation was divided on the measure, but legislative leaders largely supported it.

Lawmakers added a requirement that the privately-run school create an accountability board to give nearby residents a voice in how department policies are developed and implemented.

The Senate Executive Nominations Committee on Monday unanimously approved 13 nominees to the board, sending their nominations to the full Senate for consideration. One appointee, Lorraine T. Dean, a professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, told senators that she still opposes the measure.

Del. Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City), an opponent of the Hopkins bill, said she was “not surprised” that another city school would seek to expand the powers of its police force. She said she is neutral on the Morgan State proposal.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.

Branch called the bill “a slight extension” of existing law.

“They’re not patrolling anything,” he said. “This is if the police need help.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.