The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday that campus police records at private universities are subject to the state’s public records law.
The 4-3 decision likely will pry open police records at the University of Dayton, Wittenberg University and other private institutions that have police forces.
The court said that private college police forces are authorized under state law to carry out a basic government function and therefore are subject to the open records law.
The case stems from a records request made by an editor at Otterbein360.com, an online student publication at Otterbein University in suburban Columbus. In January 2014, Anna Schiffbauer asked Otterbein police for student and non-student cases that had been referred to the Westerville mayor’s court. University officials denied the request.
The university argued that it is a private entity, not a public office, and its police force is an internal department of Otterbein. The high court disagreed.
After the ruling Thursday, this newspaper submitted requests from the University of Dayton for police reports from several high-profile incidents, including a string of alleged dorm burglaries that led to the dismissal and arrests of two UD basketball players.
UD officials said they have to review the court ruling and their processes before releasing anything. In addition to criminal matters, they said campus police handle university disciplinary matters protected from disclosure under a federal law that protects the privacy of student records.
“We have to establish a records retention schedule and find out where we stand and what we’re required to release versus what’s protected, or what we’re prohibited to release under (federal law),” said UD police chief Bruce Burt.
While they haven’t been forced to comply with state public records laws, UD and other private universities have to report campus crime statistics via the federal Clery Act. There were 153 crimes reported at the school between 2010 and 2013, according to these federal reports. The annual student population is around 11,000.
The Clery Act also requires schools to make available for public inspection a log of reported crimes, noting when they were reported, where and the general nature of the allegation.
A reporter viewed the log at the UD police department Thursday. The most serious report came on May 5, when someone reported that a rape in a campus residence hall ocurred in the early morning of April 23. The crime log gives no additional information, but UD police said there is an ongoing investigation awaiting analysis of forensic evidence.
There were more than a dozen theft reports this month, most recently from the UD Arena on Wednesday.
Absent an arrest, which creates a court record, private universities historically haven’t released details of crimes they investigate. This protects the school’s image as well as the identities of students who are often referred to internal disciplinary boards instead of courts, creating no public record.
Burt said UD police act as both criminal investigators and discipline administrators, and if the Supreme Court ruling applies to them they would need to figure out how to separate disclosable criminal interactions from protected administrative ones.
“Right now we’re in a position where we don’t know what we can release,” he said.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine filed an amicus brief in the Suprme Court case on the side of Schiffbauer. The attorney general said campus police have the power to search and confiscate property, detain and arrest and use deadly force. Sworn officers on campus forces have the same powers as city police or county sheriff’s deputies.
“Police officers exercise some of the most intrusive and consequential powers wielded by government, and their plenary authority to do so is granted uniquely from the sovereign power of the state,” the AG brief said.
The high court noted that a private entity may be considered a public office for purposes of public records when it performs a governmental function.
DeWine said Thursday: “It’s a victory for open government. The reason I took the step of filing an amicus brief in this is because I felt that there shouldn’t really be two different rules for police officers in this state.
“If somebody is a police officer, they’ve been granted the power by the state to make arrests and do several things that a police officer can do. The open records law should apply to them, just as it does to any other police officer.”
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