Bill would make campus police records public

Bill would make campus police records public

By Marc Larocque

There are just a few differences between getting busted by the Northeastern Police and the Boston Police. Namely, getting caught by the BPD is a matter of public record and with the NUPD, it’s not. But that might be changing.

A bill in the Massachusetts State Senate that would force special state police officers, like the NUPD, to make all incident reports accessible to the public was postponed for the second time Wednesday. Under current laws, special officers are not required to release the same amount of information as public forces.

Police at Northeastern are not public officers, but have the power to arrest and to request and use search warrants.

The Campus Police Records Bill would require that all schools, including private universities, publish crime logs that are easily accessible to students. Such logs are required to include the date, time, location and nature of each crime. Incidents must be included within two business days, but sensitive information may be withheld to protect victim confidentiality.

The bill could cause major changes on some college campuses, but Associate Director of Public Safety James Ferrier said it won’t make a major difference at Northeastern.

He said the NUPD already makes detailed incident reports available to the media, and so the department would be almost completely unaffected by the bill. The only difference would be that if the bill passes, the Office of Public Safety would have to develop a policy of releasing written reports to the public, for a fee. However, Ferrier doesn’t think there will be much demand for such reports.

“I could count on one hand the number of times someone has walked into our office to see our public log, let alone get a police report,” said Ferrier, who has worked in Northeastern’s public safety office for about 30 years.

Although the bill won’t have a large impact at Northeastern, Ferrier said it stemmed from limited communication between campus police and student media at other universities.

“Some of the other campuses in Massachusetts don’t have the open access to their campus police information we’ve had here at Northeastern for so many years,” Ferrier said. “Some of the other colleges make nothing available to campus newspapers other than what’s in the public log, which is very minimal,” he said.

The bill followed a lawsuit filed against campus police by student journalists at Harvard University, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts. The suit failed, however, when the state’s highest court ruled that Harvard police, under current law, do not have to release the same amount of information as public forces.

“The things they do not let the public see are incident reports of private organizations. They could not be proved to be public records,” said Ryan McCollum, legislative director for State Senator Diane Wilkerson, a supporter of the bill.

After the lawsuit failed, the Campus Police Records Bill was drafted.

The bill is sponsored by Senator Jarrett Barrios (D-Cambridge) and has also been supported by Security On Campus, a national non-profit campus safety and victims’ rights organization, along with the Harvard student newspaper, The Crimson.

“We filed it at the request of the students, so they’re obviously concerned about safety and want openness in their campuses,” Barrios said. “When they requested that a senator file the bill, he thought it was a good bill and the reasons were the right ones.”

The Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU also supports the bill. The ACLU believes since police hold one of the weightiest positions in government, they should be open to public scrutiny.

“I think people have a right to know what’s going on and that transparency is an important civil liberty principle,” said Anne Lambert, lawyer for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We think that, particularly within sensitive operations like police operations, there is some certain basic information from the police that should be made public.”

Lambert said the purpose of the bill is to let students know where and when they should be more careful on campus. Although important information will be disclosed, there will be strong privacy protections for personal information, especially for sexual assault victims, she said.

The bill originally made it to the State Senate floor Jan. 18, only to be postponed to Feb. 15. If the bill passes, it will go to the House, where it was sponsored by Rep. Timothy J. Toomey Jr.

Barrios is optimistic.

“Personally, from our office we haven’t received any opposition to this bill,” Barrios said.

Northeastern students like Julie Guerin, a freshman undecided major, don’t oppose it either.

“It makes sense that the crime report should be made public,” Guerin said. “In most cases, the offender knows what they were doing was illegal, so just because they attend a private school they shouldn’t be excused from having the same information reported as anyone else.”

– Staff writer Hailey Heinz contributed to this report.

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