Georgia Legislature passes bill increasing access to campus police records

GEORGIA — Thepublic will have unprecedented access to campus police records at privateuniversities in Georgia thanks to legislation passed Thursday — only the second of its kind in the nation.

”With this law in place,police at private colleges will have to release to the public their initialcrime incident reports and arrest records just like all other Georgia policedepartments already do,” said Carolyn Carlson, a Georgia State Universityprofessor who lobbied for the language on behalf of the Society of ProfessionalJournalists.

Open records advocates are optimistic that Georgia Gov.Sonny Perdue will sign the bill into law. With his signature, the bill would gointo effect July 1.

”We believe it will make students safer andpolice departments more accountable,” said Daniel Carter, vice-presidentof Security on Campus, a non-profit organization that advocates for increasedtransparency in campus crime records.

A similar bill that would subject allcampus police departments to open records laws is pending in the stateLegislature in Massachusetts. A similar law was enacted inVirginia in 1994.

Campus police records at public universities arealready public under the Georgia Open Records Act.

And under thefederal Clery Act, which passed in 1990, private universities that acceptfederal funding are required to release some campus crime information, includingstatistics and a basic crime log.

Yet even when they had beendelegated official police power by a state or local law enforcement agency, someprivate universities claimed they were under no obligation to release policeincident reports that would be public record at a community police agency.

The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in February 2005 that the campuspolice department at Mercer University, a private institution, was not a publicagency under the state open-records law. The court’s decision ended ayearlong legal battle for access to Mercer police records sought by attorneysfor a female student who was sexually assaulted in 2003.

In May 2005,the Georgia Supreme Court declined to hear the case against Mercer, lettingstand the appeals court decision.

Legislative efforts to open policerecords at private universities in Georgia, led by Sen. David Adelman,D-Decatur, picked up steam after the appeals court decision.

Thebill passed in the last day of the Legislature’s 2006 session.Adelman’s original bill, SB153 died in the House Rules Committee. He then tacked similar language ontoHB1302,a bill addressing law enforcement at public schools.

The bill passedin a 135-12 vote in the House of Representatives.

If the governorsigns the bill, Georgia law would read, ”Law enforcement records created,received, or maintained by campus policemen that relate to the investigation ofcriminal conduct and crimes as defined under Georgia law and which are notsubject to protection from disclosure by any other Georgia law shall be madeavailable within a reasonable time after request for public inspection andcopying.”

In the press release from the Society of ProfessionalJournalists, Adelman said shifting his Senate bill from the Open Records Act tothe House measure made the finished product ”a distinction without adifference.”

”This law protects the right to know of themany thousands of Georgians who live, work, play and study on private collegecampuses,” Adelman said in therelease.

Check back for further coverage on the anticipated impact of this legislation and reactions from open-records advocates, student journalists and administrators at private colleges and universities that could be affected by the law.