Proposed Ohio legislation would require all private police forces to make records public

OHIO — Ohio legislators have introduced a second bill aimed at making public the records of privately employed police officers, whose incident reports, arrest logs and other records have long been kept secret.

The more than 800 privately employed police officers — those working at private colleges, universities and other private or non-profit institutions — in Ohio are authorized to uphold and enforce the law, carry a gun and make arrests, but their records are not explicitly subject to public records law like all other sworn, commissioned officers’ are.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Heather Bishoff, D-Blacklick, and Michael Henne, R-Clayton, is a broader approach to previously introduced House Bill 411, which would require most private school police forces to make their records public. The second bill would apply to all private police forces in the state.

“Our contention is that if you have been delegated the authority to make arrests as a public officer would, then you should have to abide by the rules that a public officer does,” Bishoff said.

HB 411, introduced last month by Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland, would only apply to private colleges and universities’ police if they have an agreement with local law enforcement to patrol off-campus, although Patmon said his original intention was for it to apply to all private forces.

“My intent is to make sure that not just hospitals and colleges, but anybody that hires a private police force — in fact, if we certify it as a government — should have public records,” Patmon said. “Once the state hands over that license to you and you become involved in policing either on campus or off, it’s the same thing to me.”

C. Todd Jones, president and general counsel for the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, said the association believes Patmon’s legislation would affect 15 of the 16 private schools with police forces. To him, both bills pose serious risks to private colleges and universities.

One concern, he said, is that the schools and their officers would be liable for any libelous or slanderous information made public in their reports. Jones also worries that victims of crimes wouldn’t be protected well enough under the law.

“Frankly, it’s not clear that it’s good public policy that the arbiter of whose name is publicly exposed in the media and whose name is not, is a decision best left to the newspapers themselves,” Jones said. “And in fact we’d like to see something more protective created if there’s going to be a chance in the law.”

Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, had expressed concerns that HB 411 was drawn too narrowly, but said it was a good start. He likes Bishoff and Henne’s bill, and said that it covers the issue more thoroughly.

“The idea that to me as a parent, a neighbor of the campus or the hospital that employs these officers, that they wouldn’t have to play by the same rules as every other police department has to play by just frankly, seems nonsensical to me,” Hetzel said. “There’s so much argument in favor of, you know, having access to basic information about police records.”

Bishoff echoed the idea that if granted the same authority, officers should have to play by the same rules.

Jones, however, said if both private and public law enforcement are to be treated the same, “then we ought to start doing some of the other things that benefits public law enforcement in the same way.”

“All of our police are required to comply with the same training requirements as any other sworn public police officer, and yet the large continuing flow of money from the state of Ohio to police agencies, none of that money flows to independent police forces,” Jones said.

Bishoff said her bill was prompted by a call to action from the Ohio attorney general and by a story by The Columbus Dispatch about challenges facing Otterbein University student journalists.

Last year, the Student Press Law Center’s Report wrote about the difficulties that student journalists at Otterbein 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.

“In today’s community, fiscal responsibility, transparency are all very sensitive issues,” Bishoff said. “And transparency as it relates to community safety is especially important because we as communities, we as parents and businesses make decisions based on that information.”

Hetzel said it’s too early to tell which bill will move forward, but the bipartisanship of Bishoff and Henne’s bill is promising.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll get something done in this session,” Patmon said.

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