Crime under wraps
A look at why administrators at some prestigious schools are reluctant to give out incident reports.
For student journalists at The Harvard Crimson, Harvard University's student newspaper, struggling with the campus police department to obtain records is commonplace.
Crimson editors have appealed all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in a fight to gain access to incident reports they say campus police have routinely denied the paper.
"If that uniformed, badge-wearing gentleman on the corner looks like a policeman, carries a gun like a policeman, stops, searches, questions, and arrests students and non-students alike like a policeman, and executes warrants like a policeman, then he's probably a policeman," said an unsigned editorial summing up the logic of The Crimson's lawsuit. The editorial ran Nov. 14, four days after justices for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case.
The student journalists' plight at Harvard parallels the problems student editors have at other private universities that are attempting to balance the public's right to know about campus crime with institutional pressure to maintain student privacy.
And some open records advocates said concern about maintaining the school's prestigious reputation further complicates efforts to obtain police records.
Factoring in reputation
James Herms, a partner at the Student-Alumni Committee on Institutional Policy, a Cambridge, Mass,-based non-profit firm that consults with schools on security policy, said he believes reputation is a significant factor in obtaining records at prominent private schools.
"Harvard will get international publicity" if a significant incident hits the press, he said, noting that the school draws significant coverage globally.
"Parents of students can say 'Gee, there haven't been any of these issues at Stanford or MIT'," Herms said. "If there was publicity, would people want to send their kids to the school?"
Harvard University spokesman Joe Wrinn said concerns about the school's reputation do not play a role in determining which records the campus police department releases to the Crimson or to the public.
But former Crimson President Amit Paley said concern for reputation could factor in the decision to release information.
"I think that Harvard is very cautious about releasing information that might make it look bad," said Paley, who now works for The Washington Post. "Some speculated that was why the university did not want to release certain types of crime information. But I don't know for sure why administrators decided not to release records to us."
The role of campus administrators in maintaining the school's public image can lead to institutional pressure for the police department to restrict access to certain crime records.
"Although we had good relationships with individual officers and received information from them, there was an institutional decision not to release certain information that was crucial to public safety and keeping the campus informed about crime," Paley said.
Concern about student privacy is the basis for the lack of cooperation in some circumstances, said Lauren Schuker, current Crimson president.
"The department has been forthcoming in some situations and less so in others," Schuker said. "Since their records are not public, they are simply not allowed to divulge some information. This is why we are fighting this in court rather than on a personal basis."
The police department files daily crime logs on its Web site. Schuker said the newspaper gathers most of its information from the log, but the logs are "incomplete" and lack detailed information.
When outside groups raise legal issues with campus police department policies, officials are more willing to listen, Herms said.
After Herms' group consulted with the Harvard University Police Department over compliance with the Clery Act, the department enhanced its logs, offering a hard copy and an online version.
The Clery Act, which passed in 1990 and has been amended several times since then, requires all public and private colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to release information about campus crime and safety including annual campus crime statistics and a campus security department crime log.
Herms said his organization worked with Harvard to improve its public police logs to comply with federal law in 2004 and 2005 because the logs used to omit dates and report crime locations from where the student phoned in a crime rather than where the crime actually occurred.
"They now have the best online log" of universities with which he is familiar, Herms said.
While the police department now offers an updated log, it refuses to offer incident reports. The crime log offers minimal information, including date, time and place of an incident, but it does not include the officer's detailed report.
Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn said the school created an internal advisory group to review police department policies. According to the final report issued by the group in May 2004, the group did not favor the release of incident reports because of privacy and other concerns. A student-attached addendum written by Paley and two other student members of the committee dissented from the report issued.
Public schools a different ballgame
If Harvard journalists attended a public institution, access to records would fall under state open records laws, Herms said.
Herms cited the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as an example of how a public records system can work.
The school's police chief has had "no problems" with the open records policy, he said.
Any member of the public can request files and expect a response in approximately ten days, Herms said. If the request is approved and a check for copying costs is sent to the department, the person requesting the files can expect the files in a reasonable time period.
If a police department denies the request, students can appeal to a supervisor of public records. The request will be heard within three to four weeks, he said.
The appeals process is particularly useful for schools in controversial situations, because campus police officials can deny the request to appease administrators, passing along the responsibility of granting access to the records to the state officials, Herms said.
The public's right to know
Leading campus security experts argue the public's right to know crime information outweighs any harm caused to the school's reputation.
Releasing records at a private university "would not affect student privacy for 99.5 percent of students" because their private disciplinary records are not public, Herms said.
Police should make incident reports available in cases where the community would be better served if its members were aware of the information, he said.
In order for the records to be released to the public, Herms said, there must be overriding public interest.
Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, a non-profit organization created to increase transparency in campus crime records, said Harvard is in a unique position because its officers are considered deputy sheriffs for two Massachusetts counties. State law gives them the authority law enforcement officials, not just that of private security officers.
The designation allows officers to make arrests off school grounds, but those files may fall under Harvard privacy laws, he said.
"Viewing HUPD as a professional police force it is claimed to be, and not merely a private security detail, requires it to be treated as its 'real world counterparts are," the Crimson editorial said. "Among the benefits the Harvard community could hope to gain from greater University openness are a more complete knowledge of crime trends and information on why people are stopped, questioned and arrested."
Harvard thinks the students who get in trouble deserve special protection, Carter said, but other students end up with less protection because they have less information about potential crimes.
"To afford a select number of special protections, they are subjecting others" to a dearth of uncensored information, Carter said.
Paley said the community needs the records to hold Harvard police accountable.
"I think it is crucial that the campus and the surrounding community have access to the crime documents that Harvard is required to release under state law," he said. "The documents give citizens important information that can help them stay safe."
Similar institutions, similar problems
Student editors at other prestigious institutions have encountered similar problems.
At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, The Cornell Daily Sun Editor In Chief Erica Temel said tension affects the relationship between her reporters and the university police department.
"Our relationship isn't that great," Temel said. "They are not that eager for us to get involved."
The Sun interacts with the Cornell University Police Department frequently while compiling a weekly crime log and covering other Ithaca crime news.
Temel said she believes privacy is the foremost concern for the police department, which she said is not subject to open records laws despite state funding for the university's agricultural school.
The university police department does not make incident reports available to the newspaper, said former Sun crime reporter and current news editor Michael Morisy.
The Daily Pennsylvanian Managing Editor Garrett Young said the relationship between the University of Pennsylvania Division of Public Safety and the student newspaper is tenuous.
"Sometimes, both sides get frustrated with each other trying to do their jobs," Young said.
The newspaper runs a weekly crime log with the aid of an online database compiled by the police department. A sergeant helps student reporters file through a more extensive paper crime log if reporters need additional information, Young said.
The flow of information between the department and the newspaper "depends on the situation and depends on the officer," he said.
When students fall under investigation, the flow of information slows.
"They aren't keen to divulge details of an ongoing investigation," Young said.
Incident reports are not available to Pennsylvanian staffers, although police officials do read and give details from the report when speaking with reporters, he said.
The Crimson's day in court
The justices "aggressively questioned" The Crimson's case during oral arguments, said Herms, who was in the courtroom.
Justices were more receptive to Harvard's case and sat back and let Harvard lawyers explain the school's side, he said.
"My impression is that they are leaning towards a narrow application of the law," Carter said.
Even if the court rules in favor of the university, Carter said, efforts are underway in the state legislature to pass a bill forcing campus police at private institutions to release all records under public records law. n
Case: Harvard Crimson, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, et al., No. 2004-4-0774 (Mass. Nov. 7, 2005)
reports, Winter 2005-06
Clery Act Q&A
What is the Clery Act?
Passed by Congress in 1990, the law forces all schools receiving federal funding to provide a daily campus crime log, an annual statistical report and "timely reports" regarding crimes presenting an ongoing threat to the campus community.
What information has to be included in the log?
The log must include the nature, date, time, general location and the disposition of the complaint. However, it does not have to include the names of the people involved.
Do officials have to provide a photocopy of the log?
No, although state laws usually require public schools to do so.
When must the log be made available?
The log must be available to the public during normal business hours Monday through Friday.
When must information be added to the log?
Within two business days of the initial report.
How long must campus officials keep old logs?
What crimes must be included?
All crimes reported to a campus police or security department.
For more information: visit www.splc.org/cleryact to read the SPLC's legal research page on the Clery Act.
What about your police?
If your campus police are covered by a state open records law, they will often have to release some detailed crime records, including incident reports.
If you are at a public college or university and the campus police are employees of the school, you should be covered.
If you attend a public college or university where security services are contracted through a private company, it is likely records will fall under open records law.
If you are at a private college or university where the campus police have "law enforcement authority," such as the ability to make arrests, records could fall under the law.
If you are at a private college or university that does not have "law enforcement authority," you may get access to records required under federal law, but state statutes rarely require the release of information.
For more information: visit www.splc.org/ccc to download the SPLC's campus crime booklet (requires Adobe Acrobat).