This article is more than 4 years old

Universities and their police forces: the beat goes on

Paul Greatrix looks at the latest US and UK trends in on-campus policing.
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Security in US universities is very different, not least because of different legal frameworks, reporting requirements and traditions and we’ve noted here before about the very different approaches in the US to campus security including universities buying up military hardware and the acquisition by one university of an armoured truck.

The Chronicle reported a few years ago on the different approaches to university security and how campus forces and the Police work together. It also explored why university security officers are armed and reveals that a surprisingly large proportion of them do carry weapons. In the most recent US survey it seemed that about 75% of officers at four-year institutions were allowed to carry arms – that was in 2011-12 and it is likely that the proportion will have grown since then.

Trouble in Baltimore

More recently there is a report on the desire of Johns Hopkins University to establish its own police force. It’s been a long drawn out process involving significant lobbying of local officials and elected representatives over several years.


Baltimore is a violent city – on the day before the Hopkins President was making the case to city councillors, 24 people were shot and five killed. Part of the rationale on the part of the university therefore is to ensure greater protection for its staff and students but also to make up for a perceived shortfall in policing in the city:

The university has long looked for ways to increase its investment in safety on campus. It has increased spending on security by $20 million in the past five years, according to the university, but has seen little improvement. According to federal public-safety data, there were 20 cases of aggravated assault on the three campuses that would be patrolled by the proposed police force in fall 2017. Currently the university has an unarmed force of 1,000 security guards and a unit of armed, off-duty Baltimore Police Department officers.

Many universities have similar forces to those proposed and they have both guns and powers of arrest. The university is Maryland’s largest private employer, employing almost 50,000 people and contributing billions of dollars to the state’s economy every year. Nevertheless there is clearly real scepticism and concern from city residents, some of whom see this proposal as a retrograde step:

But local residents are wary of the university’s intentions. They cite instances of Johns Hopkins swinging its weight around to get what it wants — often at their expense, they say. They object to a private police force in a city with a well-known policing problem. The thought of a police force accountable not to the public but to the university makes them uneasy. They’d rather see investments in youth programs and other steps that could curb the cycle of crime in the long term.
The controversy illustrates the difficult side of a mammoth university’s regional influence. Hopkins casts a long shadow, and some residents are tired of living in it.
Dayvon Love, public-policy director at the Baltimore think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, which advances the interests of black residents, says he’s dead-set against the idea of the state authorizing a police force for the university. Increased policing, he says, would only weaken the university’s already strained relationship with Baltimore’s black community.
“There has been several decades of documented distrust and organized opposition to the growing role that Hopkins plays in East Baltimore,” Love says. “After the displacement and gentrification that Hopkins has caused, a private police force is just another insult.”

Trouble on the waterside


Meanwhile in the UK, where the context is very much one of addressing shortfalls in public funding rather than having armed officers available, Northampton University, in common with some others, has set aside money to pay for police on its new campus.

Northampton University has set aside the most and will spend £775,000 over the next three years on one sergeant and five constables to patrol its new campus. The scheme was introduced after crime on its campuses rose to a six-year high. The university said that it was subsidising the project “at a time when central funding to officers is reducing”, adding that it wanted to bolster the police presence in the town “rather than stretch it further”. Under the schemes, universities pay police forces in return for officers patrolling campuses or student areas, or contributing to wider community projects. While officers are dedicated to protecting students, they are not employed by the university and report to the chief constable.

The arrangement means that universities can be confident that they will have officers present when they need them but given that police budgets have decreased by 19 per cent since 2010 and the overall number of officers has gone down by 20,000 over the same period, there is some concern this could create tension between well-supported institutions and their less well off communities.

A twist of scandal

Back in Baltimore, academic staff and community groups have identified common ground in opposition to the university’s proposals:

A group of more than 60 faculty members at Johns Hopkins signed a public letter in opposition to the proposed armed police force, calling it an “undemocratic” and “antagonistic” move by the university. Lawrence Jackson, a professor of English and history and a Baltimore native, says he’s concerned about what this could mean for the community he grew up in.
“I just absolutely do not believe that empowering even more police officers who inevitably will be selected from the standing Baltimore City Police Department will help the situation,” he says. “There is no citizen redress with a private police force that owes its principal allegiance to the university.”
Gresham, the community organizer, says he and his neighbors worry about an additional presence of armed police. In 2017, the city’s police department reached a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that it had violated the civil rights of black residents for years. Although Hopkins says there would only be about 12 armed officers patrolling at any given time, Gresham says more police officers would be “overwhelming.”

It does appear that there are still some twists in this tale though as individual senior leaders at the university have made personal donations to support those involved in the decision. As the Baltimore Brew reported :

In early February, two state lawmakers introduced the legislation with the support of Baltimore’s mayor, Catherine Pugh. The legislature is weighing the bill, and the university says those deliberations could take months.
Questions have emerged about how Johns Hopkins earned Pugh’s support. As a private, nonprofit entity, the university is barred from making contributions to political campaigns or politicians. But on January 9, Daniels, five vice presidents, the provost, and the past and current presidents of the Johns Hopkins Hospital made a total of $16,000 in donations, as private citizens, to Pugh’s re-election campaign.

So, plenty of mileage in this story yet, and there is some way to go before Hopkins achieves its aim of employing its own armed officers, but the whole situation remains a challenging one for residents and the university alike. Although UK universities such as Northampton are also employing police officers this really does feel a world away from the Baltimore situation.

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