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Legal changes opening up more campus police records

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Universities are required by law to disclose a limited amount of information regarding campus crime, but public access to campus crime records could soon be expanded if students at a number of East Coast schools have their way.

Recent changes at Yale could lay the foundation for further developments. In February, Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission ruled that Yale must provide access to campus police records in compliance with the same laws that apply to public police departments under the Freedom of Information Act. After initially insisting the Yale Police Department was not “functionally equivalent” to a public police department, the university accepted the decision on April 11, citing the involvement of its police in surrounding city neighborhoods, according to an April 14 article in the Yale Daily News.

Yale’s decision to expand access to campus police records comes on the heels of an incident involving two officers from the Yale Police Department. In that incident, the officers arrested a black teenager blocks from campus and gave an account of the event that contradicted the account given by the suspect. According to The Hartford Courant, public defender Janet Perrotti took on the teenager’s case, making an open-records request in the process. When Yale denied her request on the grounds that its police department is part of a private institution, Perrotti appealed to the Freedom of Information Commission, which ultimately ruled in her favor.

In a statement issued April 11, Yale stated it would “abide by the FOI Commission’s decision requiring disclosure of certain documents related to Yale Police Department officers,” recognizing “the unique and public law enforcement role that its officers play in the City of New Haven.”

The university added in the same statement that “records relating to the police function of the department – specifically including police reports and arrest records – have always been available to the public through the New Haven Police Department.”

Even before the decision to open campus police records at Yale, the 1991 Clery Act has required that universities submit annual reports on crime statistics and give warnings regarding threats to students. But the FOI commission’s ruling will take these requirements a step further, requiring the YPD to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, despite being a private institution.

The FOIA calls for federal agencies to provide access to any records requested in writing by any person, with nine specific exceptions explained in the statute.

Yale is not the first private university to adopt an open-records policy. In Georgia, the public gained access to private universities’ campus police records through the Campus Policemen Act in 2006. In Massachusetts, similar legislation is under consideration.

The Massachusetts Campus Crime Information Bill was brought before the Massachusetts legislature Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight last June. So far, the bill has not been passed.

James Herms, a member of the Safe Campus Initiative and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology alum, is working to get the Campus Crime Information Bill passed in the Massachusetts legislature. The MIT Crime Club is currently at the head of Safe Campus Initiative, a campus safety advocacy group consisting of students from a number of private institutions in Boston, including Harvard.

Herms said the legislation is in line with the FOI’s decision at Yale. He added that the FOI’s ruling will “definitely” add momentum to the bill.

Herms also said the MIT Crime Club believes the legislation “will bring private universities up to level of state schools, in terms of professionalism.”

He added that there’s a significant divergence in crime rates between public and private universities.

“Perpetrators feel safer on private campuses,” Herms said, adding that if campus police departments at private universities begin to release detailed information on crimes, such as sketches of suspects, community members will be safer.

Students at other schools have advocated in the past for expanded access to campus police records. In 2003, the Harvard Crimson sued the university’s police department, which had argued that because campus police departments are “subsidiaries of private entities,” they are not bound to the same laws that apply to “public” police departments, according to a Jan. 11 editorial in the newspaper. The Crimson ultimately lost the suit.

As the FOI Commission reviewed the Yale case, the Crimson editorial noted that a ruling for increased disclosure of police records in neighboring Connecticut would be “especially relevant” at Harvard, since the Harvard police is “almost identical” to the Yale police – both are private entities, but both are also granted “special state police powers” by their respective states.

Josh Teitelbaum ’08 said his experiences at Brown and in the surrounding community – including a role in the now-defunct Coalition for Police Accountability and Institutional Transparency – have led him to a similar conclusion about Brown’s Department of Public Safety.

Teitelbaum said it has always been difficult to get information from the Department of Public Safety, especially when it comes to soliciting information on personnel.

Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety Mark “Porter always points to the rights of his officers,” Teitelbaum said.

To illustrate his point, Teitelbaum referred to one instance when he and fellow students sought to file a complaint against a DPS officer.

Teitelbaum said the only means DPS gave him to help identify the officer in question were photos from the department’s summer barbecue.

Teitelbaum said the incident highlighted the “absurdity” entailed in seeking information from campus police.

DPS officials could not be reached for comment.

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