Ga. bill that would open private schools’ campus crime records nears deadline

GEORGIA — It’s now or next year for the state bill that proposes holding police departments at private universities to the same records disclosure standards as police forces at public schools.

After a March 16 hearing legislators reworded Senate Bill 153, which now specifies that only records pertaining to the “investigation of criminal conduct and crimes” would be subject to disclosure. Lawyers representing private Emory University complained that the original wording–which would have made all campus police documents public–was too vague.

Sen. David Adelman (D-Decatur) introduced the bill on Feb. 8 after a state appeals court ruled that police at private Mercer University are exempt from the state Open Records Act because the police force’s authority does not constitute public powers.

“I always favor openness in government and these private university police departments are quasi-governmental in nature,” Adelman said.

The bill passed the Senate floor vote on March 11 and the House Rules Committee on March 21. The bill must pass a House floor vote by March 31, the last day of the legislative term. The bill does not appear on this week’s voting schedule, but on the last day of each term the house organizes a supplemental voting schedule to squeeze in a few extra bills. Sara Larios, counsel to the rules committee, said Senate Bill 153 still has a chance.

“Our last meeting to add bills will be Thursday morning [March 31],” she said. “If it hasn’t been added to the calendar by our Thursday morning meeting it will not be added to the calendar this session.”

The original version of the bill proposed expanding the Open Records Act to include all reports and documents “received or maintained by an educational facility … that employs campus policemen that relate to the duties, activities and functions of such campus policemen,” according to the legislation.

During the March 16 hearing, Chairman Wendell Willard of the House Judiciary Committee, lawyers representing Emory University and Adelman collaborated to clarify the bill’s description of materials subject to disclosure.

“Emory University said that they thought the way it was written was over-broad but that they were in support of it to the extent that records were limited to criminal investigations,” said Amanda Farahany, the attorney fighting for access to Mercer police records, who testified in support of the bill and has been working closely with Adelman. “I think that had a large part [to do with] it moving forward.”

Farahany said the bill became a personal issue for Adelman, who lives near Emory’s campus in suburban Atlanta, when he realized “he was not able to get the [police] records for his own neighborhood.”

Representatives from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalists also testified in support of the bill.

If enacted, Senate Bill 153 will remove the fine distinction between the disclosure responsibilities of police forces at Georgia’s public and private schools. Under the federal Clery Act, all public and private universities receiving federal aid must publish an annual list of violent crimes committed on campus. Only public schools’ police forces, however, must also disclose their individual detailed incident reports.

The bill has bipartisan support, with three Democratic and three Republican cosponsors. Adelman said Georgia’s political climate is conducive to this expansion of the state Open Records Act.

“I hope it will pass this year,” he said. “This is a relatively simple bill.”

–By Kate Campbell

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