Sunshine Week 2016: Shining a light on private campus police departments

Private universities’ police departments represent a hole in public-records access. In all but six states, private campus police forces are not required to disclose police reports under the public records law — despite having the power to arrest and use force.

In honor of Sunshine Week 2016, a week devoted to open government and public access, the SPLC launched a new campaign to open police records at private universities: Stop Secret Police.

This week was particularly timely, as the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that the University of Notre Dame’s police department is a public agency subject to the state public records law. The appellate court ordered the trial court to evaluate ESPN’s records requests to determine which are now subject to disclosure — but the records may never see the light of day, thanks to a piece of legislation that is headed towards the governor’s desk. Here’s our explainer of the situation in Indiana.

In an open letter urging Indiana’s governor to veto the bill, SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte wrote that the bill would codify “the extremist position of private universities that the way they use their governmental policing authority is none of the public’s business.” Secret police, he concluded, belong in North Korea — not South Bend, Indiana. Read the letter here.

The SPLC also conducted a public-records audit of 30 private universities across the country. Only three of the colleges provided police reports upon request. Ten never even responded to the public records requests. Here’s the results of the audit, and an in-depth look at the national climate of private campus law enforcement.

If you have requested records from a private university’s police department, share the response with us by using the hashtag #StopSecretPolice or by emailing us. We’ll compile instances of secretive police — and the steps in certain states to change the public records law — on our website, Stop Secret Police.