Marshall student journalists honored for persistence in pursuing police records

Two college journalists at West Virginia’s Marshall University have won the Society of Professional Journalists’ prestigious “Sunshine Award” for exposing the existence of an off-the-books set of campus police reports separate from the ones made available for public review.

The SPJ will recognize Samantha Turley and Marcus Constantino for a series of October 2010 stories in their campus newspaper, The Parthenon, documenting that the Marshall University Police Department selectively withheld some crime reports from a log provided to student journalists.

The existence of “off-the-books crimes” came to light as journalists from The Parthenon inquired into widespread rumors about a sexual assault in a campus dorm (a complaint that police ultimately decided they lacked the evidence to pursue). Any report to police of a serious crime such as rape should show up in the daily crime log available for public inspection, but the log provided to The Parthenon made no mention of it.

Turley and Constantino will receive their award at SPJ’s national convention Sept. 27 in New Orleans.

Federal law requires that college police agencies (including those at private schools) maintain a publicly available log on which every report of a serious crime is posted within 48 hours of the complaint. This is true even if the crime remains unsolved and under investigation, since one purpose of the log is to allow people to take precautions against known dangers. If police could wait to disclose reports of crime until after they’d made an arrest, then the crime-prevention value of public disclosure logs would be pretty much zero.

If you’re experiencing obstacles in obtaining police records, consult the SPLC’s “Covering Campus Crime” handbook (made possible by funding from the charitable arm of the SPJ), and contact the SPLC’s attorney hotline if problems persist.