Statement on Johns Hopkins University Private Police Force

2 April 2019

Thank you for contacting me regarding SB793 entitled the “Community Safety & Strengthening Act”. This bill, more commonly referred to as the “Hopkins Police Bill,” has inspired significant, sustained and much needed debate in our city. I’m writing to respond to you and explain my position on this proposal. Let me frame the context at the start.

First, let me assure you that I am fully aware of the public safety crisis in our city. It is the role of local and state government to ensure public safety. The current level of violent crime in Baltimore is absolutely unacceptable and must be addressed by local and state government.

Secondly, please know that I am doing all I can at the state level to develop effective policies and deliver essential resources to the Mayor’s Office and Police Department, so that they might carry out their duty to protect and maintain public safety in a humane, effective and constitutional manner.

Third, understand that my perspectives on public safety, crime prevention and criminal justice are informed by my training in public health and enhanced by my compassion, empathy and commitment to equity.

With that context in mind, I hope you’ll understand my position on the Hopkins Police bill, even if it differs from your own. You see, I oppose this bill. It proposes to authorize police powers for a private force to act in public spaces, in our communities, and to use public dollars to fund this private force. In my view, this proposal sends us down the slippery slope of using public dollars to privatize public goods. It has the potential to hasten the end of good governance.

Rather than use public resources to pay for private policing, why not invest in those interventions that will address the root causes of our public safety crisis, namely employment, education, mental health and substance disorder treatment, access to transportation to reach education and jobs — and all of those supports should be available to returning citizens as well —  and create clean, green neighborhoods with healthy housing for all? We must face the historic harms that underlie these root causes of crime. Until we do, there are not enough police in the world to make our streets safe for everyone.

In addition, I believe that we must also address failures in our criminal justice system that penalize minor offenses, feeding the school to prison pipeline, while simultaneously offering a revolving door to those individuals who have demonstrated a propensity to physically harm others.

Evidence based, public health approaches will help to address the root causes of crime that I describe above. As a public health professional, I know that it is better to prevent an epidemic of cholera with clean water, than it is to treat thousands of desperately ill, helpless people. Preventing epidemics is the role of government, not the private sector. Our public safety crisis is driven and maintained by the same types of forces that drive disease epidemics. To fix our crisis, we must look beyond expansion of armed police and invest in people and communities. We have failed to do this for too long, and we are now reaping the results.

I began my career as an international health researcher at Johns Hopkins University – got my dream job right out of graduate school. Hopkins is the reason I landed in Baltimore twenty years ago; I worked for the university for nearly ten years. I am so grateful for that. I’m now in a position to serve this city that I’ve grown to love so much, because this university gave me a chance. But as a “Hopkins person” I feel it is my duty to be honest and hold the institution that I hold dear to the highest standard. I do not believe that a private force operated by the university, funded with public dollars, is the solution to our needs.

When this bill was presented to the Baltimore City House Delegation on March 12, I voted against it. Unfortunately, the bill passed out of the City Delegation (9-4) and as a result was referred to the House floor for a final vote.

On March 20 this bill passed the House of Delegates (94-42). I am one of the Delegates who voted against it. I stood up to explain my vote, and I stated:

“Frightened people make should not make policy. Policy driven by fear is bad policy… If we invested as much energy, creativity and resources to enrich the lives of all Baltimoreans, we would have a safer city. Instead, we use public resources to expand policing. I believe we should apply our limited public resources to do the greatest good for the greatest number. This bill does the opposite, and so I voted against it.”

The passage of this bill saddens me. Instead of investing in public safety strategies that work, we’re doubling down on the same failed policies – overpolicing, diverting scarce public resources to private ends, underinvesting in public health approaches, fear mongering and worse –  that helped bring us to this point. I could be wrong. After all, several human beings lost their lives to gun violence during the weeks we spent deliberating on this bill. But overpolicing by a private force would not have saved those lives; education, mental health treatment, employment and decent housing might have.

Thank you for your feedback. I hope I represented your interests as well as I could.