Last month, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that campus police at private colleges and universities are exempt from the state’s Public Records Act. This move runs counter to the last 25 years of progress to ensure greater public accountability for campus crimes.
The case arose after ESPN requested crime reports involving football players from the University of Notre Dame. While the Indiana Court of Appeals required release of the police records, the Indiana Supreme Court overruled because, while campus police serving on private campuses exercise the same authority as other state law enforcement officers (such as the ability to make arrests, carry weapons, etc.), their departments are exempt from state law disclosure requirements because they are operated by a private entities rather than a public institution.
ESPN's Brief to the Court argued that this lack of accountability has significant “real-world implications.” ESPN argued that journalistic coverage could ensure transparency and accountability by citing a report from South Bend Tribune that Notre Dame campus police “has investigated more than 30 allegations of sexual assault by University students, but not a single one of those cases resulted in criminal charges against the [alleged] perpetrator.” By allowing such police records to remain private rather than be released as public documents (with identifying information of the victims redacted), the public is unable to know whether law enforcement is properly investigating to ensure access to justice for survivors of campus sexual violence.
This argument for transparency is especially compelling given the recent finding by the U.S. Department of Justice's review of Baltimore City law enforcement to show broad mishandling of rape reports and Buzzfeed's investigative coverage of Baltimore County law enforcement (and other jurisdictions) showing questionably high rates of "unfounded" sexual violence reports to suggest similar mishandling of rape reports. “Without access to police incident reports, journalists and concerned citizens have no way of knowing the severity of crimes in their community and whether the legal system is responding to those crimes with adequate urgency,” said Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, which has been at the forefront of advocating in court for greater access to campus crime report information for decades. “It's vital for the public to have some way of verifying whether serious criminal behavior is being diligently investigated and punished.”
Compounding the challenge for transparency around campus sexual assault at private intitutions, Indiana nearly enacted a state law this year that would have explicitly exempted private campus police from the Public Records Act. Thankfully Indiana Governor Mike Pence (now Vice President-elect of the United States) vetoed the legislation in March 2016 noting that “[l]imiting access to police records in a situation where private university police departments perform a governmental function is a disservice to the public and an unnecessary barrier to transparency.” Despite these compelling arguments for transparency at private campuses, the Indiana Supreme Court noted that the state law had left a loophole for private colleges to avoid such public scrutiny regarding their handling of criminal sexual assault reports.
Given SurvJustice’s mission to hold “both perpetrators and enablers of sexual violence accountable in campus, criminal and civil systems,” the Indiana Supreme Court ruling to keep private campus police crime reports secret is directly at odds with our crucial work. Allowing private institutions of higher educationt to hide police records denies campus communities and students equal protection under the law by preventing transparency and accountability through journalistic investigations that the general public enjoys with its ability to request records from state institutions. Instead of enshrining this injustice in statute, Indiana and other states must ensure transparency for the way sexual violence is handled by campus police on private campuses.
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Authored by S. Daniel Carter, SurvJustice Board Secretary
Laura L. Dunn, Esq.