Otterbein student journalist sues for private school's police records

OHIO — A student journalist at Otterbein University is asking the Ohio Supreme Court for help in the student newspaper’s effort to obtain records from the private university’s police force.

Otterbein police, who are among the more than 800 privately employed police officers in Ohio with state arrest powers, insist that they need not disclose their arrest reports and other records that would be public at a city- or county-operated police department.

Anna Schiffbauer’s lawsuit argues that the Otterbein Campus Police Department is established by Ohio law, exercises a governmental function and is therefore bound by the Ohio Public Records Act to allow the public to access its records.

“What we’re really looking to gain from this is to protect students’ right to know about what’s happening on their campus community,” said Gena DiMattio, editor-in-chief of Otterbein360, the student-run online newspaper.

Otterbein University is not a public office and operates under federal mandate “to protect our students’ information from release and we take seriously our obligation to safeguard victims of sexual assault, as well,” Otterbein spokeswoman Jennifer Pearce wrote in an email statement.

Proponents for access to the records say someone living on a college campus should have the same access to police records as they would if they were living elsewhere.

“It’s basically their community, their home for four years, so when they don’t have the same access they would have if they lived on a regular residential street, then the issue is one of access to information and government transparency,” said Schiffbauer, Otterbein360’s news editor.

Otterbein student journalists have struggled to gain access to police records since the campus security transitioned to a full-fledged, commissioned police force in 2011. Prior to that, the Westerville city police handled crimes on campus. This allowed students and others to access arrest information and other records through that office.

Schiffbauer said though they hoped the situation would change, requests for records were continually denied. With the help of a $5,000 grant from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund, she filed the claim Thursday against Larry Banaszak, director of campus police, and Robert Gatti, vice president and dean for student affairs.

In his denial of Schiffbauer’s Jan. 16 public records request for 47 individuals’ criminal reports (both students and non-students), Gatti said that as a private university, “Otterbein believes we are not subject to Public Records and therefore do not make our records public.”

Ohio’s public records law defines a public office to include “any state agency, public institution, political subdivision, or other organized body, office, agency, institution, or entity established by the laws of this state for the exercise of any function of government.”

In the suit, Cincinnati-based attorney Jack Greiner argues that the Otterbein police department is a body established under Ohio law to serve a governmental function. Therefore, refusing access to its records is a violation of the Ohio Public Records Act.

“Otterbein University cannot avail itself of Ohio law to create a law enforcement agency that has the power to make arrests, conduct investigations, and carry firearms, only to disclaim any associated duties that accompany this power,” the suit states.

Pearce said that Otterbein’s crime information is available on the Clery Act crime report on their website, where there is also a crime log.

“Any arrest records are accessible in the court systems in which they are filed,” Pearce wrote.

Students have used this route to get records before. Schiffbauer said when a professor was accused of sexual imposition of a student on campus, police wouldn’t release the records, but they gained access when the case went to the Franklin County Municipal Court.

The Ohio legislature is considering two separate bills that would make the records of private police forces public. HB411 would make public the records of police employed by nonprofit corporations and by most private university police forces public. HB429 aims to make records of all privately employed police public.

Though legislation would clarify the issue, Greiner said he believes the students should be able to get their records under existing laws.

Schiffbauer said they still decided to file, even with these bills in play, because while she hopes HB429 becomes law, there’s a possibility that nothing will come of either bill.

“It’s one more layer that might help in the fight for public record access,” Schiffbauer said. “I think it’s just one more way that something might change.”

SPLC staff writer Sara Gregory contributed reporting. Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.