D.C. university asks police to zip their lips

SPJ: Confidentiality agreements threaten student journalists' ability to cover campus crime

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The University of the District of Columbia is asking its police officers to sign a confidentiality agreement that would bar them from disclosing police information to the public, angering campus police officers and concerning journalists.

Robert T. Robinson, vice president of the public university’s Department of Public Safety and Emergency Management Services, circulated the agreement to officers in a Jan. 12 memorandum. Although not specified in the agreement itself, Michael Andrews, a spokesman at the public university, said signing the agreement is voluntary and officers will not be punished for refusing to participate.

The confidentiality agreement asks officers to refuse to discuss or disseminate “all records related to University business or University personnel, whether received, disseminated, generated, or maintained by the Department …” Among the records officers are not to release are incident reports and personnel rosters, the agreement states.

The agreement will not interfere with the media’s ability to cover campus crime because reporters will still be able to access police records by filing an open-records request through the university’s communications department, Andrews said. The agreement is intended to tighten up campus security and prevent officers from giving out sensitive information that might compromise police work, he said.

Many large organizations, including municipal and campus police departments, have a designated media spokesperson. The organizations typically ask other personnel not to speak to the media and to refer requests for comment or information to the media department, said Carolyn S. Carlson, vice chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ subcommittee on campus crime.

“We see this a lot, frankly, and not just on campuses, but where people try to control whether employees can speak to the media by trying to funnel all media contacts through public relations officials or department chairs or elected officials,” Carlson said. “It’s not a great idea, but it’s not an unusual idea.”

Confidentiality agreements are not “great ideas” because they can be harmful to student journalists by preventing students from learning how to accurately cover campus crime, Carlson said.

“I’m afraid that [student journalists] are going to get it wrong more often because they won’t have someone to walk them through the process. They won’t be able to ask questions. And if they ask questions, they won’t be able to get answers. So I think [campus police departments with confidentiality agreements] are going to end up shooting themselves in the foot,” Carlson said.

But confidentiality agreements can be a problem for another — and some say more troublesome — reason. If campus law enforcement officials are intent on clandestinely covering up campus crime and fudging statistics, a confidentiality agreement might prevent a disgruntled employee from “blowing the whistle” on unscrupulous crime-reporting practices.

“If you’re talking about stifling dissent or legitimate grievances — if you’re talking about withholding access to important campus crime information — then obviously it is a problem,” said S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security On Campus, Inc. The group is dedicated to creating safer college and university campuses across the country. 

Other universities, such as Georgetown University, also in Washington, D.C., have confidentiality agreements, and like Georgetown, they tend to be private institutions. The University of Maryland, which is a public, does not ask officers to sign confidentiality agreements, according to The Washington Times.

While UDC said that the confidentiality agreement is not in response to any particular incident, Billy Greer, a UDC police officer, suspects it may be a response to an incident in which files from a university finance department office were stolen. The information in the files might be related to the recent renovation of UDC President William L. Pollard’s home, said Greer, who has been at the university for 17 years.

“Most of the officers on the job refused to sign it because it was mainly a slap in the face. We feel as though if an incident takes place on this property, we owe it to the public to keep the public and the community abreast of what’s going on,” Greer said. He added that as a sworn police officer, he is obliged to uphold the law and knows what information he can and cannot release to the public.

Greer believes the confidentiality agreement will cast the UDC police in a negative light in the community’s eye. The community may view silence as secrecy, breeding feelings of mistrust and suspicion that could diminish the effectiveness of the police department, Greer said.

Open-government advocates agree with Greer and believe that it is important for students, faculty and staff to be aware of crime on campus and what the campus police are doing to combat it.

“The best way for the campus communities to protect themselves against crime is to know what kinds of crime are occurring. It’s important for the public to know how the campus police force is handling crimes so that they have confidence in the campus police force,” Carlson said. n

open records, reports, Spring 2004, University of the District of Columbia