N.Y. advisory body says ‘private’ campus police force covered by open-records law

The Ithaca Journal is appealing adecision by Cornell University officials to deny the newspaper access to campuspolice records of an alleged hate crime.

The commercial newspapersubmitted an open-records request to the university this month for access tocampus police reports of the alleged Nov. 9 assault. The university denied therequest, claiming that because Cornell and its police force are not governmentagencies, it does not have to comply with the New York Freedom of InformationLaw.

But Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York StateCommittee on Open Government, said that since the university’s police officersare deputized through the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, the recordsrequested by the newspaper are subject to the state’s open-recordslaw.

“By virtue of that statutory granting of authority, the policedepartment is performing a governmental function,” Freeman said. “And that wouldbring the records under the coverage of the state’s freedom of informationlaw.”

Freeman said the state’s Committee on Open Government, a governmentagency, will issue an advisory opinion on the matter within fourweeks.

Simeon Moss, deputy director of Cornell’s media relations office,declined to discuss the university’s decision. The university has 10 days torespond to the Journal‘s appeal.

The Journal first learnedof the alleged crime after the Cornell student newspaper, The Cornell DailySun, published an article based on an interview with the alleged victim inits Nov. 11 edition. The white female student told the Daily Sun thatfive black females and one black male assaulted her after a hip-hop concert atthe university. The university police are investigating the alleged incident asa hate crime.

John Carberry, metro editor of the Journal, said thepolice reports should be open to the public regardless of whether the universityis public or private.

“Police authority is a serious thing,” Carberrysaid. “[University police] can seize people, seize property, use deadly force incertain situations, and you’d like to think that any agency with those powers isopen to public scrutiny”

The Journal‘s pursuit of access to thepolice reports is similar to those at Harvard University in Massachusetts andTaylor University in Indiana. Student journalists at the private schools haverecently been denied access to campus police records because the universitiesclaimed they are not subject to state open-records laws. The Harvard studentnewspaper, The Crimson, has sued the university for access to the recordsit requested.

SPLC View: As the saying goes, if it looks likea duck, quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck — well, it’s probably aduck. So, too, with private school police forces. Police at Cornell, like policeanywhere – and campus police at many private schools – can carry guns and havethe authority to make arrests. When you call 911 from a campus location, theyare the responding law enforcement agency. They are the police. And, as the NewYork Committee on Open Government has recognized, even though they havejurisdiction over a private school campus, they should be held as accountable asany public police force.