The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 12, 2018

Four ways private university police forces jeopardize public safety

Last week, Maryland lawmakers decided to not endorse a proposal from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) to create its own armed police force in Baltimore, citing a lack of community support for the idea. As JHU alumni and policy researchers, we strongly agree with this decision.

The debate has been postponed until this fall, providing lawmakers time to study the implications of such a force. The idea of establishing a private police force for universities is not new—many public and private universities have their own police.

But in the wake of more police killings of unarmed Black citizens like Stephon Clark, the 2015 killing of Samuel Debose by a University of Cincinnati Police officer, the 2013 beating and killing of Tyrone West by Morgan State University police, and the April 3rd shooting of student Charles Thomas by the University of Chicago Police Department, universities should question whether private police forces make campuses and their surrounding communities safer.

More police would not improve strained relationships between universities, police, and surrounding communities.

Many elite universities like Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago tend to have tenuous relationships with surrounding neighborhoods, which are often disproportionately Black or Latinx and plagued with high levels of crime, economic disadvantage, and structural inequality. Those neighborhoods, as a result of historic police abuse and unaccountability, often have fraught relationships with law enforcement.

If residents already witness and experience high rates of policing, incarceration, and violence, leading them to question the intentions, effectiveness, and trustworthiness of the police, the introduction of an armed police force specific to the nearby university is unlikely to help strengthen relationships—either with the university or with police.

In cities with long histories of abuse and misconduct like Baltimore and Chicago, policymaking’s focus should be on repairing broken trust through investments in safety for the entire community.

We do not know if private police departments engage in unbiased, equitable policing.

Private police are not required to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. This yields no transparency on the nature or volume of their use of force on students or members of the community—important data for justification of an armed police force—beyond what they voluntarily release.

The public also has a limited ability to determine if these police forces engage in racial profiling, overpolice community members for quality-of-life infractions, or underpolice students for underage drinking or drug use.

Preliminary data from Johns Hopkins’ campus-wide Crime Alerts, which are sent only to students, staff, and faculty, indicate that 76 percent of suspects were described as Black, whereas only 2 percent of suspects are identified as white. Fifty-six percent of suspects were identified as Black males ages 17 to 23, the same age as most students on the JHU campus. The story told by these alerts is incomplete and makes people of color on and off campus feel targeted. Instead of releasing alerts and reports only to university affiliates, campuses should make all records and trainings of their police publicly accessible.

Private campus police are not accountable to all they police.

A campus private police force is accountable only to the university community but affects lives in the surrounding community not affiliated with the university. For example, the University of Chicago police have jurisdiction over 65,000 people, even though only 15,000 people live on campus.

Communities know that the police are primarily beholden to their university and their university’s interests—making students and their parents feel safer. This disconnect between authority and responsibility undermines public trust in law enforcement. Despite having the legal authority to arrest and administer lethal force to people off campus, private campus police are not required to be accountable to those unaffiliated with their university. If universities want to increase safety on and around campus, they should build in accountability measures like civilian review boards and create community partnerships and strategic safety plans.

Surrounding communities can be left out of creating policing priorities and public safety goals.

Community policing principles emphasize working with neighborhood residents to coproduce public safety. This means law enforcement agencies should work with community members to identify problems and implement solutions so communities feel heard by law enforcement and feel invested in public safety.

By their nature as private entities, JHU and other universities are not required to meet these community policing standards. They can act as gatekeepers, setting police priorities without community input or support. In fact, a major criticism of the Johns Hopkins proposal was that community stakeholders were excluded from the process.

Lawmakers should be wary of private police forces, especially if they are established without adhering to principles of community policing. Instead, universities could collaborate with their neighboring communities and use participatory justice models to have the community drive conversations around safety. 

Beyond campus police

For the reasons we’ve discussed here, JHU’s campus might be safer without a private police force. Lawmakers might see private police forces as increasing safety without spending taxpayer money, but the shooting in Chicago last week shows that the cost of a private police department may be at the expense of neighboring communities and students of color.

Without transparency, accountability, and community collaboration, private university police lack legitimacy, a crucial component for effective, equitable policing. The proposal to create a Johns Hopkins police force presents university administrators, lawmakers, alumni, and communities an opportunity to reflect on better, more equitable ways to create safety on college campuses with surrounding communities.

Police officers stand watch on the Hyde Park Campus of the University of Chicago on November 30, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.