MISSOURI — When the steady trickle of campus police incidents disclosed by Webster University’s police department abruptly dried up, the staff of the weekly student Journal grew suspicious.
“For a six week period we only reported one incident,” said managing editor Lindsey Pilcher. “Some of the [semester’s] biggest incidents were during that time period, such as an assault, suspected [drug] overdose and some major thefts.”
After grappling with Webster University’s police department for access to the crime log, the student newspaper staff discovered 57 incidents they say the department did not disclose in October and November 2004. The newspaper published 21 of the incidents–including indecent exposure, four thefts, harassment and a suspected drug overdose–on Feb. 17.
School officials refute the students’ claim.
“At no point did we ever intentionally deny [reporters] anything from those logs,” said Director of Public Safety Dan Pesold. “The 57 incidents are in the crime logs. I can’t answer why they didn’t pick up on those.”
Pilcher said that because a reporter does not peruse a physical copy of the crime log, the public safety department was able to omit the incidents that occurred during the six-week period. Every Tuesday, a reporter meets with a department shift supervisor, who reads the crime log aloud. The incidents appear in the “Misdemeanors and Mishaps” section of the newspaper.
Pilcher said repeated requests by the newspaper to see the crime log were denied.
“There was one Tuesday when we couldn’t get someone to read us the crime log,” she said. “That’s when we decided enough is enough here. We read them their own statement saying that the crime log was available and they still refused.”
Pilcher said she returned to the department with a copy of the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities to record and release to the public basic details of all police incidents on campus.
“The shift supervisor was like ‘OK,’ and he went off for about five minutes and made some phone calls and then gave me the book,” Pilcher said. “He was obviously unsure about what to do.”
Pilcher said shift supervisors sometimes had difficulty locating the crime log.
Pesold defended the Tuesday meetings as the most efficient way to publicize campus incidents. When reporters have direct access to the log, he said, they ask for more details than the department is able to give.
“[Reporters] would invariably come back for more information,” he said. “They’d see something in there and want to expound on it [in a news article]. Some things we could talk about and some things we couldn’t because it’s still an open case. What we’d try to do is kill two birds with one stone.”
Pesold said the department complies with the Clery Act by displaying the campus crime log every day during normal business hours.
Pilcher said she compared the spring 2004 semester news reports to the crime log and found only one discrepancy. When she contacted former Journal editors for insight, Pilcher said that many “were under the mistaken impression that the crime log was off limits.”
“I personally feel there was a failure in our journalism department to educate students as far as our rights go,” Pilcher said.
Pilcher said the newspaper staff has discussed the Clery Act and reporters covering campus crime will now insist on looking over the crime log themselves. The newspaper will not file a complaint against the police department unless there is further conflict, she said.
Pesold said crime log entries will feature more detail.
“We have included more information into our crime log above what [the Clery Act] requires, such as a little synopsis of each incident, regardless of how minor,” he said.
Pesold said the newspaper and police department have never clashed before.
“In my opinion this is an isolated incident,” he said.
–By Kate Campbell