Ohio considering legislation to make some private school police subject to public records laws

OHIO — Though police officers employed by private colleges and universities in Ohio are authorized to uphold and enforce the law like any other officer, their records are kept under wraps, not subject to public records law.

This may change with House Bill 411, which was introduced Tuesday and would make public the records kept by a police department established by either private colleges and universities or qualified nonprofit corporations, like hospitals.

“If in fact the government authorizes a police force to police us as citizens, then I think we have every right to expect that they be as accessible as the government that authorized them,” said state Rep. Bill Patmon, who sponsored the bill.

The bill comes two days after The Columbus Dispatch reported on the issue of private police force oversight. The timing is a coincidence, said Patmon, who began considering legislation last year after a constituent contacted him about not being able to access records that were made at the time of an interaction with a private police force.

The legislation, as written, applies to private colleges and universities only if they have an agreement with local law enforcement to patrol “outside the property of the private college or university” — meaning it wouldn’t apply to schools whose police patrol only on campus.

According to The Dispatch, there are 16 private universities that employ state-trained and -certified police officers. It’s not clear how many, if any, have agreements that allow campus police to patrol areas off campus.

But the stipulation has raised concerns among those who want to see all private police forces subject to public-records laws.

Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said it’s a good start, but it’s drawn too narrowly — it should apply to all private police forces with sworn commissioned officers.

“We’re letting them carry guns; we’re letting them arrest people” Hetzel said “Why shouldn’t they have to release the basic information under Ohio law that the local police department has to? …. (Currently) you can’t even see an incident report. You can’t see an arrest log. That’s extremely troubling when you consider the powers of these police forces.”

Cincinnati-based attorney Jack Greiner said he’s concerned that the language about off-campus policing may limit the applicability of the bill and sees the stipulation as a loophole.

“It might encourage private universities not to enter into agreements with local municipalities so that we’d be right back to where we are,” Greiner said. “We still wouldn’t be able to get the records of arrests on campus.”

Patmon said he would have to go back and “take a good close look” at the language of the bill. He said the whole point behind it is that if an agency is set up to exercise public duties, what they do should also be public.

C. Todd Jones, president and general counsel for the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, expressed reservations about the bill. Though he hasn’t had a chance to speak with the association’s members, he sees a number of risks with the legislation.

Jones believes the legislation as written could prompt many of the schools to end agreements with local law enforcement, which he says would leave those areas with less police protection unless the local police reassign officers to that area at an added cost to the community.

“One of the potential risks of the legislation is that it will lead campuses to close some of their sworn police forces and revert to a campus security model and put the burden of policing back onto their local communities that they’ve taken up by taking on a sworn police force,” Jones said, adding that he was concerned this could result in a decrease in sexual assault reports from students who feel more comfortable reporting to their own campus police department.

Jones said he was also concerned about whether private schools could be sued for libel because of content in officers’ notes.

Greiner said getting rid of a sworn police force would be “misguided and shortsighted.”

If a private university “eliminated their police force and went back to a private security force just to avoid the obligations of the public records act, I think that would be just grossly irresponsible,” he said.

Last year, the SPLC Report wrote about the difficulties that student journalists at Otterbein University have faced while trying to access campus police reports at their private university. Earlier this month, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund announced the students were recipients of a $5,000 grant to help them challenge the limited access to campus police records.

Greiner, who has agreed to represent the students, said he thinks they will be will be filing a petition soon to ask a court to order the release of records.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the legislation,” he said. “We think we ought to be entitled to it as-is, based on the existing legislation.”

Jones said he questions what problem the legislation is attempting to solve. In some sense, the rationale seems to be a “convenience factor” for reporters, he said.

Greiner said it’s in the public’s interest to know what the police are doing.

“They’re police, and it’s really a very fundamental right of the public to see what police are doing and not doing,” Greiner said.

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.