The Tale of Two Cities
Community Concerns Heeded: The Baltimore Experience
Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU) proposal to create a new police force to patrol the Baltimore campus and surrounding neighborhood landed with a thud in a city still shaken by the acquittal of three officers charged with participating in the 2015 killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who was shaken to death in the back of a police department van. JHU’s proposal ignited civil unrest in a community fearful of unleashing unaccountable private police in their neighborhoods.
In April 2019, the Maryland General Assembly enacted the Community Safety and Strengthening Act. The act empowers JHU to establish its controversial private police force. Indicative of democratic participation, community stakeholders voiced their fears of and belief in this police force. The late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings was a key supporter, stating that he lost a nephew to violence. He predicted that without political change in Baltimore, “[More] blood will be spilled.”
The act sets appropriations for the JHU police force and provides increased funding for the recruitment and training of new law enforcement officers. Funding is also appropriated for youth services, including introducing young people from the social margins to potential law enforcement careers.
Before the act became effective, dissent was potent. As the Baltimore Sun reported, protesters staged a nearly one-month-long sit-in in spring at a JHU administration building before escalating tactics. At the tipping point, protesters chained doors and blocked windows to such an extent that administration operations were relocated on campus. Police made arrests. A GoFundMe page attributed to Students Against Private Police and Hopkins Coalition Against ICE, two highly cited organizations in opposition to the JHU force, drew $12,315, more than twice the initial $5,000 goal.
The environment reflected political engagement. Protester marches, sit-in activities, and public comments revived consistent criminal justice concerns. Had Baltimore adequately addressed its police brutality history? Would arming JHU police boost militarization against and police surveillance of local residents and non-white JHU students?
As the Washington Post reported, dozens of JHU faculty members signed onto an opposition letter, arguing JHU private police would be “antagonistic” to communities of color. The faculty members maintained that newly armed officers would “inevitably amplify the climate of fear and justify their [policing] roles by citing stops, arrests, and detainments.”
JHU police protesters pushed several demands: (1) withdrawal of plans to create the private police force; (2) cessation of JHU cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and (3) an admission of criminal wrongdoing in the killing of 44-year-old Tyrone West, who died in 2013 after he fled a traffic stop and struggled with police from the city of Baltimore and Morgan State University.
When it became apparent that JHU could not be stopped from creating a police force, opponents turned their focus to making sure that the police force would be subject to meaningful public oversight. They found a ready ally in Senator Mary L. Washington, D-Baltimore, who pushed for pro-transparency amendments to the Community Safety and Strengthening Act.
Since 2016, campus police have fatally shot people at Georgia Tech, Portland State University, and the University of Cincinnati.
The private university offered to make limited disclosures, including an annual report to the public containing data and demographic information regarding the size of the police force, stops, arrests, use of force, and complaints against officers. Washington was unsatisfied. In addition to the annual report, she convinced the Senate to add that “the police department shall allow a person or governmental unit to access information in the same manner as a person or governmental unit would be able to access a public record of a [public] law enforcement agency under the Public Information Act,” if the documents relate solely to law enforcement functions (as opposed, for example, to salary data or officers’ personnel files). Governor Larry Hogan signed the act in April 2019, with the transparency wording included.
JHU Vice President for Finance Daniel G. Ennis promised to promptly appoint a public oversight board and to negotiate transparently with the city of Baltimore over a memorandum of understanding divvying up policing responsibilities with Baltimore city police, including several public hearings.
Community Concerns Unheeded: The Chicago Experience
The relationship between the majority-white University of Chicago (UC) and the majority-black residential neighborhood that surrounds it has been described as “precarious.” WBEZ-FM’s news program, “Curious City,” explored the tension in an April 2019 episode, tracing neighborhood distrust back to the 1930s and ’40s, when the university supported restrictive covenants that kept black families from buying homes in the West Woodlawn community that adjoins the South Side Chicago campus.
Roughly 100 officers from the UC police department patrol a six-square-mile area in and around the campus, serving as the primary law enforcement agency patrolling a neighborhood of about 50,000 non-campus residents. The university took on full policing authority after enactment of the Private College Campus Police Act in 1992, enabling private postsecondary institutions to apply to the state for law enforcement certification.
UChicago United, an organization of multicultural students at the university, has demanded that UC police obey Illinois’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enabling the community to see how the university is using its state-delegated law enforcement authority. A student-led movement, Campaign for Equitable Policing, sought to open the department’s records after hearing multiple complaints about harassment by campus police officers that could not be documented without access to the agency’s files.
As with Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, police-community relations in Chicago have been strained by questionable uses of force against people of color, particularly the October 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Police and the Chicago mayor’s office fought for 13 months to keep the public from seeing the dash-cam video that, when finally released to journalists under court order, showed that officers lied to justify the shooting and exaggerated the threat McDonald posed. Four years after the killing, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison.
In the UC’s South Side neighborhood, scrutiny of the college’s policing intensified after officers shot and seriously injured a 21-year-old student in April 2018, which UC claimed was the first shooting by its police force in 40 years. Video showed that the student charged at the officer with a pipe, and, as a result, the shooting was deemed justified.
Recent findings from the University of Chicago’s GenForward Survey, which regularly polls a demographically diverse pool of young adults 34 and under, confirm that respondents believe nonwhite people are singled out for unfavorable treatment by police.
Per the July 2019 research, almost half of African American GenForward respondents said they always or often go out of their way to avoid interaction with police. Almost 30 percent of Latinos said the same. A 57 percent majority of respondents, cutting across racial and ethnic lines, agreed that police treat black people worse than white people. Fifty-one percent of respondents agreed that police treat Latino people worse than white people.
In 2015, state Representative Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, filed legislation to require police at private Illinois universities to adhere to the same public-records standards as police at public universities. The University of Chicago did not support the change. UC was able to take the steam out of the transparency movement by voluntarily agreeing to make additional disclosures beyond the minimum necessary under federal law, which requires colleges to release only a skeletal daily crime log and an annual statistical report of serious crimes. Representative Currie’s bill never became law.