By Corey Friedman
In a wrongheaded and poorly reasoned June 5 ruling, the N.C. Court of Appeals found that police departments at private universities are not subject to the state public records law. If the ruling stands, private-school police will have more power to keep secrets than local authorities, the governor’s office and the State Bureau of Investigation.
Nick Ochsner, a student journalist at Elon University’s campus television station, sued Elon and Attorney General Roy Cooper when the college police department refused to release information on a student’s March 2010 arrest. Campus police released a bare-bones portion of the incident report, but wouldn’t budge when it came to the officer’s narrative.
The portion of the state public records law pertaining to police reports already is maddeningly murky. The law doesn’t specify the narrative portion of the report as public information, but it does require police to disclose “the circumstances surrounding an arrest,” which, in our interpretation, should include most contents of an officer’s narrative.
An Alamance County judge ruled that the information Elon released was sufficient. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals took a different approach, ruling unanimously that campus police at private universities are exempt from the public records law.
State statute defines a public law enforcement agency as“any state or local agency, force, department or unit responsible for investigating, preventing or solving violations of the law.” It specifically lists city, town and county police and sheriffs departments and company police agencies commissioned by the attorney general.
“We believe if the legislature had intended for campus police departments to be subject to the Public Records Act, it could have listed campus police departments as public law enforcement agencies,” Judge Cressie Thigpen wrote for the appellate panel.
This narrow and shortsighted interpretation belies a fundamental ignorance of the public authority that campus police officers exercise. These aren’t security guards, who have no more authority to detain someone in North Carolina than any other private person. They are officers sworn to enforce state law and empowered to file criminal charges against anyone in their jurisdiction.
Crime is crime, whether it takes place in a city or county or on the campus of a private university. It troubles us that those who accuse someone of a serious criminal offense at an institution of higher learning are not held to the same standards of public accountability as police officers and sheriff’s deputies elsewhere in North Carolina.
“The court has effectively created a scenario by which they’re giving an agency arrest power and telling them that they can do it in secret,” Oschsner told the Student Press Law Center. “That’s just wrong. I’m frightened by this, and anybody who values access to government records should be frightened.”
Secrecy rarely if ever serves a legitimate purpose. We challenge Elon to explain why the details of alleged campus crimes should be kept from the public. We sincerely doubt the institution could articulate a cogent and logical reason.
Ochsner is still deciding whether to appeal his case to the state Supreme Court. We hope he does — a problematic precedent that limits public access to important information should not stand unchallenged.
Whether or not the ruling stands, we call on state lawmakers to rewrite the public records law to include private campus police and specify that officers’ narratives are part of the public record.
Placing people in handcuffs and hauling them off to jail is serious business. When police make an arrest and bring criminal charges, the public deserves to know why.
[Note: This post originally appeared in The Wilson Times.]
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