TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Cracking the case of campus crime

Logically, records of crime on campus ought to be the easiest records for any journalist to obtain. Crime reports are among the only documents that are specifically subject to disclosure under both federal and state statutes.

And yet, year after year, college journalists tell the SPLC that campus police departments are among the most recalcitrant when it comes to honoring requests for public records.

Among the recurring obstacles reported by college journalists is the widespread misperception that police records can be withheld, or identifying information blacked out, because of student confidentiality laws. In fact, Congress amended the federal privacy act in 1992 specifically to clarify that records kept for law enforcement purposes are not “confidential education records.”

Student journalists’ ace when dealing with police is the federal Jeanne Clery Act, which requires all colleges — even private ones — to make readily available during business hours an up-to-date log of serious crimes, describing the basic “what, where and when” facts. The U.S. Department of Education enforces compliance with the Clery Act, and — if diplomacy at the campus level fails — journalists should consider alerting their regional DOE offices if they encounter persistent denials of access or believe the records they are getting are deceptive or incomplete.

Beyond the Clery disclosure requirements, almost every state’s law makes police “incident reports” — the narrative of what the responding officer saw, heard and did — subject to disclosure. While these laws apply only to government agencies, such as state universities, the records of private college police in Georgia and Virginia are accessible by state statute, and others may be accessible based on court rulings.

The SPLC’s Covering Campus Crime guide, funded by our partners at the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, is a valuable starting point for journalists trying to equip themselves with the knowledge to respond intelligently when police misunderstand — or ignore — their disclosure obligations.

Aggressive student journalists equipped with some public-records know-how have been able to pull off some impressive feats of police reporting. In 2007, students in an investigative reporting lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee used court records and other public databases to document instances in which the Milwaukee Police Department kept cops on the force after they’d been convicted of drunk driving, domestic violence and other crimes. Their series, “Tarnished Badge,” also documented the suspicious frequency with which criminal charges against Milwaukee cops were funneled into “deferred prosecution,” resulting in no adjudication of guilt on their records.

Campus police departments are a fertile source of news, and they need and deserve close watching by journalists who understand the law even when the police don’t — or won’t.