Panel: Yale Police Subject to Open Records Laws

Many police officers on college campuses carry guns and make arrests like city police, but as private forces, are not subject to the same public scrutiny. However, a state panel has ruled that Yale University police are subject to the same open records laws as the city police.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to a fight over public scrutiny of police - in this case, campus police. At many private universities in the U.S., these private forces aren't subject to the same scrutiny as a city force. Students across the nation have been trying to change that. Now a state panel in Connecticut has given them a victory, ruling that Yale's police are bound by the same open records laws as those in the city.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Yale's police records were pried open almost accidentally. When two Yale police officers arrested a New Haven teenager who was riding his bike on a city sidewalk last year, his attorney suspected racial profiling. And as she often does with New Haven City Police, Janet Perrotti asked for the officers' personnel records to check for other complaints. Perrotti says she was stunned when Yale refused, claiming campus officers were private employees and not subject to public records laws.

Ms. JANET PERROTTI (Public Defender): I thought, how absurd. This was a police officer with all the same police powers as a New Haven police officer, arresting citizens, and not even on campus. It just defies any type of logic that you're not a cop.

SMITH: Yale declined to be interviewed for this report. In legal papers, they argue that even though Yale police, quote, "admittedly perform a government function, they are not government agents subject to public scrutiny." But, Perrotti says, common sense and fairness dictate otherwise.

Ms. PERROTTI: If you dress like a cop, if you act like a cop, you should be held accountable as a cop.

SMITH: Perrotti took the case to Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission, who agreed and ordered Yale to hand the records over.

Ms. LISA SIEGEL (Staff attorney, Connecticut's Freedom of Information commission): This really was not a close call for us.

SMITH: Lisa Siegel is staff attorney for the commission.

Ms. SIEGEL: These police officers carry guns, make arrests, and have a profound impact on people's lives. And yet, they considered themselves not accountable at all. And that, to us, was kind of astounding.

SMITH: Connecticut's open record laws are broader than most. When the issue has come up at schools in other states, courts have gone the other way, siding with campus police in Georgia, Virginia and Massachusetts, where the highest court ruled that Harvard's police were not required to share the incident reports that student reporters had requested.

Legislation is pending to make sure all campus police records see the light of day. But Harvard's spokesperson Kevin Casey says that would do more harm than good.

Mr. KEVIN CASEY (Spokesperson, Harvard): Generally, there's a view in the public that more sunshine is better. But we do fear that you can almost go a little bit too far in terms of having every single interaction become a public event.

SMITH: Casey says campus police are already required to publicly report arrests, and they do. But, he says, many students will only seek help if they believe police will be discreet. Enforcing officers to report their every move, Casey says, would have a chilling affect.

Mr. CASEY: We want to have a culture where people feel comfortable informing an authoritative figure without the fear that it's going to become front page news. And you have sort of a paparazzi climate, and nobody will report concerns that should've been raised.

SMITH: Those clamoring for more openness call that a red herring. Even if police records were shared, they say, students' most personal information would still be kept private. At Yale, student newspaper editor Andrew Mangino says schools like Yale may be trying to protect their image, but may end up doing more damage.

Mr. ANDREW MANGINO (Editor, Yale Student Newspaper): There's a culture here of making sure that negative information does not get out there. There is, I think, the perception in New Haven that Yale is somewhat of a secret society and that Yale is not subject to the same sorts of rules that the rest of New Haven is.

SMITH: Yale still has a few weeks to comply with the order to hand over their records or appeal to the courts. Sheldon Steinbach, an attorney who's represented colleges for decades, says forcing campus police to open their books would create problems where there really are none.

Mr. SHELDON STEINBACH (Attorney): Only irrational, paranoid individuals would be concerned about a rogue cop on campus, because overwhelmingly, most campus police are honest, diligent, professional policemen.

SMITH: Maybe, says Janet Perrotti, the public defender who started the fight at Yale. But if so, she says, the university should have no qualms about turning over the officers' personnel records she's been asking for.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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