Georgia Legislature passes bill increasing access to campus police records

GEORGIA -- The public will have unprecedented access to campus police records at private universities in Georgia thanks to legislation passed Thursday -- only the second of its kind in the nation.

''With this law in place, police at private colleges will have to release to the public their initial crime incident reports and arrest records just like all other Georgia police departments already do,'' said Carolyn Carlson, a Georgia State University professor who lobbied for the language on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Open records advocates are optimistic that Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue will sign the bill into law. With his signature, the bill would go into effect July 1.

''We believe it will make students safer and police departments more accountable,'' said Daniel Carter, vice-president of Security on Campus, a non-profit organization that advocates for increased transparency in campus crime records.

A similar bill that would subject all campus police departments to open records laws is pending in the state Legislature in Massachusetts. A similar law was enacted in Virginia in 1994.

Campus police records at public universities are already public under the Georgia Open Records Act.

And under the federal Clery Act, which passed in 1990, private universities that accept federal funding are required to release some campus crime information, including statistics and a basic crime log.

Yet even when they had been delegated official police power by a state or local law enforcement agency, some private universities claimed they were under no obligation to release police incident reports that would be public record at a community police agency.

The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in February 2005 that the campus police department at Mercer University, a private institution, was not a public agency under the state open-records law. The court's decision ended a yearlong legal battle for access to Mercer police records sought by attorneys for a female student who was sexually assaulted in 2003.

In May 2005, the Georgia Supreme Court declined to hear the case against Mercer, letting stand the appeals court decision.

Legislative efforts to open police records at private universities in Georgia, led by Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, picked up steam after the appeals court decision.

The bill passed in the last day of the Legislature's 2006 session. Adelman's original bill, SB153 died in the House Rules Committee. He then tacked similar language onto HB1302, a bill addressing law enforcement at public schools.

The bill passed in a 135-12 vote in the House of Representatives.

If the governor signs the bill, Georgia law would read, ''Law enforcement records created, received, or maintained by campus policemen that relate to the investigation of criminal conduct and crimes as defined under Georgia law and which are not subject to protection from disclosure by any other Georgia law shall be made available within a reasonable time after request for public inspection and copying.''

In the press release from the Society of Professional Journalists, Adelman said shifting his Senate bill from the Open Records Act to the House measure made the finished product ''a distinction without a difference.''

''This law protects the right to know of the many thousands of Georgians who live, work, play and study on private college campuses,'' Adelman said in the release.

Check back for further coverage on the anticipated impact of this legislation and reactions from open-records advocates, student journalists and administrators at private colleges and universities that could be affected by the law.

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