SUNSHINE WEEK: When requesting campus crime records, responses vary widely

Also this week

Last year’s stories

A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report arethreatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned theweeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize theimportance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebratingSunshine Week with a series of reports on access issues — including how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons andlet the sunshine in.

Campus safety has become an important concern in the wake of high-profileschool shootings, abductions and murders of young collegians across the nation. Access to records from your university police department or campus safety officeoften may be critical for accurate reporting on campus security issues.

The Student Press Law Center conducted an open records test with 21different colleges and universities, both public and private, requesting twotypes of crime-related records. We followed the same procedures the SPLCrecommends to all student journalists making an open records request: firstcalling to make a verbal request and then, if necessary, making a formal writtenrequest.

In each request we asked for two different records: a copy of theuniversity’s crime log and incident reports for either types of crimes orspecific incidents that occurred on campus. The crime log is list of policeactivities (which can include responding to crimes) at or near a college campus,while an incident report is a more detailed narrative of an event requiringpolice assistance or response.

Clery Act data

The Jeanne Clery Act mandates that certain types of information, like thecrime log and specified crime statistics, be available to the public. The crimelog (sometimes referred to as the media log) will include the nature, time,date, general location and the disposition of the incident. Another usefulpiece of information mandated by this law is a record of the frequency ofcertain types of crimes — such as murder, sex offenses and aggravatedassault — that have occurred within the past three years.

When first contacting a university, the campus police department is yourbest choice. Many times, however, police departments will direct you to apublic relations office to make an open records request. When speaking withofficials, describe in detail the exact records or information you want. Manyof the officials we requested the crime log from referred us to the crimestatistics, despite the fact that these are two very different types of records.Most of the universities we contacted were more than willing to provide thecrime log. But one potential pitfall is that the Clery Act technically onlymandates that the log “be open to inspection.” Thus, universitiesmay require you to physically come to the campus security office if you want tosee the log.

The challenges associated with retrieving Clery Act information should beminimal. The best strategy we have found, even when dealing with the mostdifficult of administrators or police, is to simply be polite and respectful. If they ask you what you are writing about, tell them as much as you can. Ifthey need a formal open records request, send them one. If they need a few daysto confer with school attorneys, be patient. Throughout the process, remainassertive and follow up with administrators accordingly, but above all elsesimply be nice.

Many administrators and police officers are eager to help assist someonewanting records. Director Larry Wood of Lincoln University and Lt. Mike Orr ofEast Tennessee State University responded to our requests promptly; we had therecords at our office within two days of requesting them.

Incident reports

The information provided by the Clery Act is no doubt helpful to studentjournalists, but sometimes more detail is needed for accurate reporting. Incident reports can include vital information like names and contactinformation of people involved in any event requiring police assistance. Incident reports, however, are not required to be disclosed under the Clery Act,and a reporter’s ability to access them depends on two main factors: theopen records laws in the state where the college is located, and whether thatinstitution is public or private.

Every state has a different law governing the type of information that mustbe disclosed and to whom it applies. Most of these laws will apply only topublic colleges and universities; security offices at many private colleges willnot be required to release more information than the Clery Act mandates. Thiswas the situation the SPLC found itself in many times in our open records test. For example, Santa Clara University and Chapman University in California,Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania and Simmons College in Massachusetts alldenied our request for incident reports.

The one notable exception was LaGrange College, a private college inGeorgia, which sent us the records we requested, including incident reports;Georgia has some of the nation’s best open records laws, pertaining tocampus police records, according to Frank LoMonte, executive director of theSPLC. Student journalists in Georgia and Virginia are in a unique positioncompared to those in other states because there are specific state laws thataddress access to private college police records.

Another important factor to consider when making an open records request isif the law enforcement agency on campus is a police department or a privatesecurity agency. Police departments, even at private schools, might be subjectto open-records requests, especially if the departments have the power to makearrests and operate as any other type of police department. Private securityforces, however, may not be subject to these laws. Randolph College in Virginia,for example, denied our request for an incident report because its Department ofSafety and Security is not a law enforcement agency. It is composed of unarmedsecurity officers that do not have the power to arrest, and therefore Randolphtakes the position that it is not subject to the state’s open recordslaws, which do require disclosures from state-empowered police forces at privateschools.

The requests we sent were created using the automated open-records lettergenerator located on the SPLC web site. Keep in mind that our letter generatoris designed to obtain records from public colleges and other governmentinstitutions. If you want to generate a letter to send to a private college,the language will have to be modified; it may be beneficial to speak with theSPLC or a local attorney.

With the exception of LaGrange College, all of the incident reports wereceived were from public universities. It is important to note that there isno law that prevents private colleges from releasing information found in anincident report, and in general most schools cited privacy concerns as thereason they would not release the records. Some schools also cited the FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. FERPA mandates that schools cannotrelease a student’s educational record without that student’sconsent, but a 1992 amendment to the law clarifies that records maintained andcreated by a “law enforcement unit” of a college or university donot fall under FERPA’s restrictions.

While getting the necessary records in order to accurately report on campuscrime presents some obstacles, there are certainly ways to increase your chancesof obtaining the necessary information. Being knowledgeable about the law as itpertains to records of public and private colleges and developing workingrelationships with campus police and administrators are the two most effectivestrategies for obtaining police records.