Crime stories can be some of the most impactful – and hardto get – stories on campus. Nearly every university across the countryexperiences some form of crime, be it underage drinking, drug use, theft,vandalism, assault or rape. By reporting campus crime, student journalists areable to raise awareness about new and recurring issues within their campuscommunity.
Journalists rely heavily on the information provided inpolice reports to accurately report on campus crime. As state actors, campuslaw enforcement departments at public universities are required by state law torelease incident reports and other crime records on request.
At private universities, accessing crime records isn’t ascut and dry. A gray area exists as to whether open records law should beapplied to private university law enforcement. A private university may haveits own police department with the same arrest powers as any public policedepartment, but in many states it’s at the discretion of the department to releasecrime records when requests are made. A private university police departmentmay respond to an open records request with the response that as a privateinstitution, it is not governed by state open-records law.
And while the law may not mandate that the records bedisclosed, private universities are free to do so voluntarily – and some do.
In February, the Student Press Law Center conducted acompliance test of incident report access at private universities. The test wasdone for the annual Sunshine Week. To test the waters, records requests weresent to six private universities: Emory University in Georgia, the Universityof Richmond in Virginia, Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, DePauwUniversity in Indiana, Davidson University in North Carolina and Brigham YoungUniversity in Utah. The requests specifically asked for incident reports of allforcible sexual assaults for the 2009 calendar year.
Two of the universities, Brigham Young and Emory, compliedwith the request and disclosed the incident reports with victims’ namesredacted to protect their privacy. The other four universities declined torelease the records by responding that they are not obligated to do so underopen-records law.
No comment at Quinnipiac
Joseph Pelletier, editor in chief of Quinnipiac University’sstudent newspaper The Chronicle, discussed how the Chroniclestaff uses available records to report campus crime at Quinnipiac.
Pelletier said although the university issues an annualcrime report and provides a daily crime log, the information doesn’t alwayssufficiently supply what’s needed to adequately report on campus crime.
The federal Clery Act mandates all universities, both publicand private, receiving any federal funding publish an annual report of crimestatistics, keep a daily crime log and issue timely notifications of campuscrime.
“There’s a pretty specific set of requirements to putsomething into the Clery Act that we can access,” Pelletier said. “There are nonames, there’s not a lot of information, so it’s not extremely helpful, butthen again there is that something.”
Quinnipiac does not have a police department on campus.Instead, it has a campus security department, which Pelletier said interactswith the Hamden Police Department, the local city police, when necessary policeforce is required on campus. Student reporters at The Chronicleare able to access incident reports from Hamden police in cases where the citydepartment is called to the scene, but Pelletier said it becomes more difficultto report when Hamden police aren’t involved.
“Security remains very tight lipped, and the university isvery tight lipped in terms of infractions and crimes that are happening oncampus,” Pelletier said. “It makes it very difficult to accurately report thesesort of things.”
When The Chronicle reportscampus crime, Pelletier said the first step is to talk to students to gaintheir perspective.
“After we’ve talked to a couple students and think we have agood sense of what’s occurred, we’ll reach out to the university and see ifthey have a response,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the time, a universityspokesperson will say, ‘The university will not comment on student matters,’and that’s been a cause for concern.”
Although Chronicle staff hasdifficulty obtaining incident reports, Pelletier said there is still a workingrelationship between the newspaper and campus security. Earlier in the year, TheChronicle did a major story on drug violations on campus and Chiefof Security David Barger was willing to sit down and interview with thenewspaper.
Pelletier said that campus crime reporting can have asignificant impact on the campus community.
“I think that these are the detailed things, security andotherwise, that should be of the utmost importance to the university,” he said.“I think that the university has a responsibility to be transparent to thecommunity. I think if there’s something where security is sending two or threeguards to a dorm room, people should know about that.”
After multiple attempts to contact Barger for comment, theuniversity responded by resending the statement declining to release therecords requested by SPLC.
Weekly meetings at DePauw
Reporters at The DePauw, DePauwUniversity’s student newspaper, share a similar situation. Christina DiGangi,news editor and former editor in chief at The DePauw, said campuspolice often work with the local Greencastle Police Department. When this isthe case, any reports are open records, and reporters can access them throughGreencastle police.
DiGangi said she meets with Angela Nally, DePauw’s directorof public safety, once a week to go over items in the crime activity log. Itemsin the log are used for The DePauw’s blottersection and then analyzed to see if there are any trends.
DePauw’s enrollment is slightly more than 2,000 students,and DiGangi said there is very little crime in the campus community. TheDePauw staff can gain some leads through word-of-mouth becauseDePauw is such a small school, even though public safety won’t release names.
DiGangi said there haven’t been any major crimes whererecords would have been needed. She said the more frequent records issue sheruns into is accessing information about administrative decisions, made in whatwould be open meetings at a public institution.
“I think that regardless of if an institution is public orprivate, the goings-on of an institution—where students are a part of acommunity and want to feel like they’re safe—I think that all of thatinformation should be accessible for their own personal knowledge,” DiGangisaid. “Bottom line, I don’t understand why any information along thoselines—concerning people’s well-being, public safety, goings-on aroundthem—should not be public.”
Public Safety Director Angela Nally responded to aninterview request by saying she had been advised not to conduct an interview.
The role of state law
Although releasing crime records beyond what’s required bythe Clery Act is discretionary at most private universities, a few states havepassed legislation requiring private university police departments to complywith open-records law, just as a public police department would.
In 2006, Georgia passed a bill granting increased access topolice records at all universities in the state. The law reads, “Lawenforcement records created, received, or maintained by campus policemen thatrelate to the investigation of criminal conduct and crimes as defined underGeorgia law and which are not subject to protection from disclosure by anyother Georgia law shall be made available within a reasonable time afterrequest for public inspection and copying.”
The legislation was enacted in response to a 2005 Georgia Courtof Appeals ruling that open-records law did not apply to Mercer University, aprivate university. Attorneys at the time were seeking police records from theuniversity of a sexual assault case from 2003.
Mississippi passed legislation in 2008 to clarify theexemptions under open-records law. The law, which applies to all campus policedepartments that exercise state-law enforcement power, requires that incidentreports include, “the name and identification of each person charged with andarrested for the alleged offense, the time, the date and location of thealleged offense, and the property involved, to the extent this information isknown.”
The law also clarifies that reports and information relatedto ongoing investigations and additional information about crime victims areexempt from public access.
Connecticut does not have a law specifically stating thatprivate police departments are governed by open-records law. However in 2008,the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission decided that the Yale PoliceDepartment is subject to state Freedom of Information Act requests.
Public defender Janet Perrotti filed a records request withthe Yale Police Department for two officers’ personnel files. Perrottisuspected misconduct when the two officers charged a 16-year-old with breach ofpeace for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Yale police denied the request,stating that as a private institution, they did not have to comply. Perrottithen appealed to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.
The commission based its decision on Connecticut law, whichstates any institution that performs a government function, receives governmentfunding or is subject to government involvement or regulation is considered“public” for Freedom of Information requests. Under this definition, it thecommission decided the Yale Police Department was a public agency performing agovernment function because its jurisdiction is not limited to Yale’s campus.
Virginia’s law on the matter dates back to 1994. It requiresthat campus police departments make criminal incident information available forinspection at the request of “any citizen of the Commonwealth, currentlyregistered student of the institution, or parent of a registered student.”Withholding is only permitted if it may “jeopardize an ongoing criminalinvestigation or the safety of an individual, cause a suspect to flee or evadedetection, or result in the destruction of evidence.”
The Virginia law was passed in response to TheCollegian, the University of Richmond student newspaper, losing alawsuit with the university over police records access. In the ruling, thejudge recommended that new legislation be passed. The law was drafted andadopted soon after.
Student reporters at the University of Richmond now meetwith university police once a week to go over the crime log.
Dave McCoy, chief of police and associate vice president forpublic safety at UR, said the police do give more information when they can,but won’t if it might jeopardize an investigation or impact the victim.
“I like to treat our police department just like we wouldany other police department,” McCoy said. “We’re willing to share information,discuss information as much as possible.”
If student reporters have questions about a particular casein the crime log, McCoy said the department can discuss the case to a certaindegree, but does not disclose full narratives and police notes.
Reilly Moore, former editor of The Collegian,said normally crime is pretty low on campus, but in the fall there was a stringof 10 assaults in four weeks.
“Normally when we have issues, when the case is closed,they’ll give us the information they need,” Moore said. “But with assaults inthe fall, they used the ongoing investigation as a reason to withholdinformation we felt we should be getting.”
Although The Collegian couldn’t getthe assault information it wanted, Reilly said that the paper and policedepartment have a good relationship.
“Generally I have to say that it’s been pretty cooperative,”he said. “We’ve agreed on not releasing names in instances involving alcoholviolation, but other than that I think we can exercise our editorial decisionmaking in terms of what we want to publish and what we don’t.”
‘The community needs to be aware’
Brigham Young University’s campus police departmentvoluntarily complies with open-records requests, even when no Utah lawspecifically requires it to do so.
Lieutenant Arnold Lemmon at BYUPD said this has always beenthe policy at the department.
“Our certification as a police department comes underneaththe direction of the Utah Commissioner of Public Safety, therefore we feel thatwe need to comply with ground law, just like any other police department does,”Lemmon said. “I think we need to be as transparent as any other state lawenforcement agency.”
Ed Carter, adviser to the Daily Universe andjournalism professor at BYU, said while crime is very low at the university,the student reporters do use records requests when necessary. He also said a recordsrequest assignment is part of his course curriculum.
“Even though crime is low it does happen,” Carter said.“It’s necessary and important that we report on it because for one, thecommunity needs to be aware of those issues for its own safety. When we’vereported on campus crimes, those are opportunities for the community to knowthat justice is being done and the law enforcement works.”
By Kyle McDonald, SPLC staff writer