Police records at private universities should be open, Ohio attorney general says

OHIO — Records maintained by a private university’s police department should be held to the same standards as other law enforcement agencies in Ohio, the state’s attorney general wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief to the state’s highest court last week.

In the brief filed on Friday, Attorney General Mike DeWine asked the Ohio Supreme Court to side with Otterbein University student journalist Anna Schiffbauer, who is seeking a court order to compel the private university’s police force to disclose arrest records.

“The records sought by Ms. Schiffbauer document the police department’s role as a police agency enforcing the criminal laws, and do not document any non-law enforcement tasks that the Otterbein University Board of Trustees may assign to officers or to other employees of the Otterbein P.D.,” the brief said. “The Otterbein Police Department was created by the government and could not exist independent of the government.”

Officials with the Otterbein Police Department, who are among more than 800 privately-employed police officers in Ohio with state arrest powers, say they are not required to disclose arrest reports because they are not records of a “public office,” the police department told the state supreme court in its motion to dismiss the case.

In his denial of Schiffbauer’s Jan. 16 public records request for 47 individuals’ criminal reports, Robert Gatti, vice president and dean for student affairs, said that as a private university, “Otterbein believes we are not subject to Public Records and therefore do not make our records public.”

Schiffbauer, who at the time was the news editor of Otterbein360, the student-run online newspaper, filed the claim in February against Larry Banaszak, director of campus police, and Gatti. In September, Schiffbauer will begin a reporting internship at the Student Press Law Center.

Among DeWine’s arguments, he said the university police department employs sworn, state-certified peace officers who are given the power to search and confiscate property, to detain and arrest civilians and to use deadly force. They also have the power to exercise police powers throughout Westerville, the city where the university is located. Contrary to the department’s characterization as “campus security,” the brief said the Otterbein police officers’ duties include “the full spectrum of police enforcement, investigatory and patrol functions.”

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the office does not frequently file friend-of-the-court briefs in Ohio Supreme Court cases in which it is not directly involved. However, Tierney said the attorney general’s office will file a brief to defend state constitutional law or if the state has an opinion on a case that neither party argued.

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. Before that, the Westerville city police handled crimes on campus, and arrest information and other records were public information through that department.

“The Otterbein P.D. is a fully empowered police department,” the Attorney General’s brief says, “and the records of law enforcement functions at this level are not private records — they are the people’s records.”