The secret police? Private college police vary in their transparency, relations with media

By Kyle McDonald, SPLC staff writer. Originally published in 2011.

Crime stories can be some of the most impactful – and hard to get – stories on campus. Nearly every university across the country experiences some form of crime, be it underage drinking, drug use, theft, vandalism, assault or rape. By reporting campus crime, student journalists are able to raise awareness about new and recurring issues within their campus community.

Journalists rely heavily on the information provided in police reports to accurately report on campus crime. As state actors, campus law enforcement departments at public universities are required by state law to release incident reports and other crime records on request.

At private universities, accessing crime records isn’t as cut and dry. A gray area exists as to whether open records law should be applied to private university law enforcement. A private university may have its own police department with the same arrest powers as any public police department, but in many states it’s at the discretion of the department to release crime records when requests are made. A private university police department may respond to an open records request with the response that as a private institution, it is not governed by state open-records law.

And while the law may not mandate that the records be disclosed, private universities are free to do so voluntarily – and some do.

In February, the Student Press Law Center conducted a compliance test of incident report access at private universities. The test was done for the annual Sunshine Week. To test the waters, records requests were sent to six private universities: Emory University in Georgia, the University of Richmond in Virginia, Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, DePauw University in Indiana, Davidson University in North Carolina and Brigham Young University in Utah. The requests specifically asked for incident reports of all forcible sexual assaults for the 2009 calendar year.

Two of the universities, Brigham Young and Emory, complied with the request and disclosed the incident reports with victims’ names redacted to protect their privacy. The other four universities declined to release the records by responding that they are not obligated to do so under open-records law.

No comment at Quinnipiac

Joseph Pelletier, editor in chief of Quinnipiac University’s student newspaper The Chronicle, discussed how the Chronicle staff uses available records to report campus crime at Quinnipiac.

Pelletier said although the university issues an annual crime report and provides a daily crime log, the information doesn’t always sufficiently supply what’s needed to adequately report on campus crime.

The federal Clery Act mandates all universities, both public and private, receiving any federal funding publish an annual report of crime statistics, keep a daily crime log and issue timely notifications of campus crime.

“There’s a pretty specific set of requirements to put something into the Clery Act that we can access,” Pelletier said. “There are no names, there’s not a lot of information, so it’s not extremely helpful, but then again there is that something.”

Quinnipiac does not have a police department on campus. Instead, it has a campus security department, which Pelletier said interacts with the Hamden Police Department, the local city police, when necessary police force is required on campus. Student reporters at The Chronicle are able to access incident reports from Hamden police in cases where the city department is called to the scene, but Pelletier said it becomes more difficult to report when Hamden police aren’t involved.

“Security remains very tight lipped, and the university is very tight lipped in terms of infractions and crimes that are happening on campus,” Pelletier said. “It makes it very difficult to accurately report these sort of things.”

When The Chronicle reports campus crime, Pelletier said the first step is to talk to students to gain their perspective.

“After we’ve talked to a couple students and think we have a good sense of what’s occurred, we’ll reach out to the university and see if they have a response,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the time, a university spokesperson will say, ‘The university will not comment on student matters,’ and that’s been a cause for concern.”

Although Chronicle staff has difficulty obtaining incident reports, Pelletier said there is still a working relationship between the newspaper and campus security. Earlier in the year, The Chronicle did a major story on drug violations on campus and Chief of Security David Barger was willing to sit down and interview with the newspaper.

Pelletier said that campus crime reporting can have a significant impact on the campus community.

“I think that these are the detailed things, security and otherwise, that should be of the utmost importance to the university,” he said. “I think that the university has a responsibility to be transparent to the community. I think if there’s something where security is sending two or three guards to a dorm room, people should know about that.”

After multiple attempts to contact Barger for comment, the university responded by resending the statement declining to release the records requested by SPLC.

Weekly meetings at DePauw

Reporters at The DePauw, DePauw University’s student newspaper, share a similar situation. Christina DiGangi, news editor and former editor in chief at The DePauw, said campus police often work with the local Greencastle Police Department. When this is the case, any reports are open records, and reporters can access them through Greencastle police.

DiGangi said she meets with Angela Nally, DePauw’s director of public safety, once a week to go over items in the crime activity log. Items in the log are used for The DePauw’s blotter section and then analyzed to see if there are any trends.

DePauw’s enrollment is slightly more than 2,000 students, and DiGangi said there is very little crime in the campus community. The DePauw staff can gain some leads through word-of-mouth because DePauw is such a small school, even though public safety won’t release names.

DiGangi said there haven’t been any major crimes where records would have been needed. She said the more frequent records issue she runs into is accessing information about administrative decisions, made in what would be open meetings at a public institution.

“I think that regardless of if an institution is public or private, the goings-on of an institution—where students are a part of a community and want to feel like they’re safe—I think that all of that information should be accessible for their own personal knowledge,” DiGangi said. “Bottom line, I don’t understand why any information along those lines—concerning people’s well-being, public safety, goings-on around them—should not be public.”

Public Safety Director Angela Nally responded to an interview request by saying she had been advised not to conduct an interview.

The role of state law

Although releasing crime records beyond what’s required by the Clery Act is discretionary at most private universities, a few states have passed legislation requiring private university police departments to comply with open-records law, just as a public police department would.

In 2006, Georgia passed a bill granting increased access to police records at all universities in the state. The law reads, “Law enforcement records created, received, or maintained by campus policemen that relate to the investigation of criminal conduct and crimes as defined under Georgia law and which are not subject to protection from disclosure by any other Georgia law shall be made available within a reasonable time after request for public inspection and copying.”

The legislation was enacted in response to a 2005 Georgia Court of Appeals ruling that open-records law did not apply to Mercer University, a private university. Attorneys at the time were seeking police records from the university of a sexual assault case from 2003.

Mississippi passed legislation in 2008 to clarify the exemptions under open-records law. The law, which applies to all campus police departments that exercise state-law enforcement power, requires that incident reports include, “the name and identification of each person charged with and arrested for the alleged offense, the time, the date and location of the alleged offense, and the property involved, to the extent this information is known.”

The law also clarifies that reports and information related to ongoing investigations and additional information about crime victims are exempt from public access.

Connecticut does not have a law specifically stating that private police departments are governed by open-records law. However in 2008, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission decided that the Yale Police Department is subject to state Freedom of Information Act requests.

Public defender Janet Perrotti filed a records request with the Yale Police Department for two officers’ personnel files. Perrotti suspected misconduct when the two officers charged a 16-year-old with breach of peace for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Yale police denied the request, stating that as a private institution, they did not have to comply. Perrotti then appealed to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

The commission based its decision on Connecticut law, which states any institution that performs a government function, receives government funding or is subject to government involvement or regulation is considered “public” for Freedom of Information requests. Under this definition, it the commission decided the Yale Police Department was a public agency performing a government function because its jurisdiction is not limited to Yale’s campus.

Virginia’s law on the matter dates back to 1994. It requires that campus police departments make criminal incident information available for inspection at the request of “any citizen of the Commonwealth, currently registered student of the institution, or parent of a registered student.” Withholding is only permitted if it may “jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation or the safety of an individual, cause a suspect to flee or evade detection, or result in the destruction of evidence.”

The Virginia law was passed in response to The Collegian, the University of Richmond student newspaper, losing a lawsuit with the university over police records access. In the ruling, the judge recommended that new legislation be passed. The law was drafted and adopted soon after.

Voluntary disclosure

Student reporters at the University of Richmond now meet with university police once a week to go over the crime log.

Dave McCoy, chief of police and associate vice president for public safety at UR, said the police do give more information when they can, but won’t if it might jeopardize an investigation or impact the victim.

“I like to treat our police department just like we would any other police department,” McCoy said. “We’re willing to share information, discuss information as much as possible.”

If student reporters have questions about a particular case in the crime log, McCoy said the department can discuss the case to a certain degree, but does not disclose full narratives and police notes.

Reilly Moore, former editor of The Collegian, said normally crime is pretty low on campus, but in the fall there was a string of 10 assaults in four weeks.

“Normally when we have issues, when the case is closed, they’ll give us the information they need,” Moore said. “But with assaults in the fall, they used the ongoing investigation as a reason to withhold information we felt we should be getting.”

Although The Collegian couldn’t get the assault information it wanted, Reilly said that the paper and police department have a good relationship.

“Generally I have to say that it’s been pretty cooperative,” he said. “We’ve agreed on not releasing names in instances involving alcohol violation, but other than that I think we can exercise our editorial decision making in terms of what we want to publish and what we don’t.”

‘The community needs to be aware’

Brigham Young University’s campus police department voluntarily complies with open-records requests, even when no Utah law specifically requires it to do so.

Lieutenant Arnold Lemmon at BYUPD said this has always been the policy at the department.

“Our certification as a police department comes underneath the direction of the Utah Commissioner of Public Safety, therefore we feel that we need to comply with ground law, just like any other police department does,” Lemmon said. “I think we need to be as transparent as any other state law enforcement agency.”

Ed Carter, adviser to the Daily Universe and journalism professor at BYU, said while crime is very low at the university, the student reporters do use records requests when necessary. He also said a records request assignment is part of his course curriculum.

“Even though crime is low it does happen,” Carter said. “It’s necessary and important that we report on it because for one, the community needs to be aware of those issues for its own safety. When we’ve reported on campus crimes, those are opportunities for the community to know that justice is being done and the law enforcement works.”

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