KENTUCKY — Objecting to a new university policy that allows victims’ names to be deleted from campus police incident reports, the University of Kentucky student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, formally requested an open-records decision from the state’s attorney general on Sept. 20.
On Aug. 25, the university began allowing victims to have their name withheld from open-records requests by checking a box on the police report. The policy also formally classifies police incident reports as “preliminary documents,” exempting them from the state open-records law.
The university said it will continue to release the altered reports in order to comply with the federal Clery Act, which requires universities to disclose basic crime information such as date, time, location and a summary of the incident. Before Aug. 25, university police released unaltered reports to the media.
In a letter to Attorney General Greg Stumbo, lawyer for the Kentucky Kernel Jon L. Fleischaker said, “The attorney general has long recognized that a police incident report is a final document.” He also argued that the police report does not change throughout the course of the investigation and therefore cannot be considered preliminary.
Kernel Editor in Chief Emily Hagedorn said the issue arose last spring after a series of assaults on campus. Police released information on a student who had been shot but initially withheld the name of an employee who was assaulted.
“It was really odd because they released the [names of] people who had more serious injuries than this guy who was just shaken up by things,” Hagedorn said.
When police refused to release the name, Hagedorn said the paper published stories and editorials about the issue and filed a freedom of information request. The name was eventually released.
“We didn’t hassle [the employee] or anything like that,” Hagedorn said. “We had a brief in the paper, just to say we got the name, and [that] so and so declined to comment.”
The newspaper has always printed victims’ names when appropriate, Hagedorn said. She said the reason the employee did not want his name released was that he feared retaliation.
“If they feel unsafe then they need to tell us; the police can’t just censor that and keep that from us,” she said. “Nine times out of 10, I can’t think of anyone who was actually mad when we called them” for comment, she said.
University of Kentucky Counsel General Barbara Jones also said the idea for withholding identities began with an employee who requested that his name be withheld.
“Based on the way the attorney general’s opinions had been released, I could not figure out a way to protect his identity,” Jones said. After three days—the maximum time agencies have to release requested information under open-records laws—Jones released the employee’ s identity.
The new policy was implemented out of respect for victims’ privacy, Jones said.
“My concern is that in a lot of instances, people aren’t arrested, people aren’t prosecuted, and the only person that becomes the public figure is the victim. And I don’t see what’s right about that. Why does the victim become the public figure?”
In the first 21 incidents of the fall semester, Jones said 11 victims requested their identity be withheld.
Following complaints from the Kernel and other local media, Jones wrote to Stumbo on Sept. 3 asking for a written opinion on the issue.
Jones said police reports become final once the investigation is complete, and the information becomes public if charges are filed. However, Hagedorn is concerned the media would never get victims’ names, even if a case is closed for years.
In August, the state Attorney General ruled in a separate case that police cannot adopt a broad policy of withholding names, but that addresses, phone numbers and other information can be withheld. Identifying victims’ gives the public an opportunity to scrutinize the police, Stumbo wrote.
Previous Kentucky Supreme Court decisions have said the names of juveniles and sexual assault victims do not need to be released.
A spokeswoman for Stumbo said his opinion is expected Oct. 15. Hagedorn said the Kernel is prepared to appeal if necessary. Jones said University of Kentucky officials have agreed to abide by the attorney general’s decision.