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Private university ordered to release police records

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Private university ordered to release police records

  • A Superior Court judge in Macon, Ga., ordered Mercer University to release records held by its police department because the university employs sworn officers and not security guards.

Jan. 28, 2004 — Private universities in Georgia that employ sworn police officers serve a public function and must therefore make their campus police records public, a Superior Court judge in Macon ruled Monday.

Judge L.A. McConnell Jr. ordered Mercer University to comply with Georgia’s Open Records Act, saying the university police force is fulfilling a public state function by enforcing the law. McConnell did differentiate between sworn police officers, like those Mercer employs, and security officers who do not have the power to carry guns, make arrests or charge people with crimes.

Open government advocates praised the ruling, which they hope will extend beyond state borders. At least three other private universities across the country, including Harvard, are currently involved in disputes over public access to records held by their campus police departments.

“We can’t tolerate private police forces in our midst. That’s a scary thought,” said Carolyn Carlson, vice chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalism Subcommittee on Campus Crime. “The government can’t delegate police powers without also delegating public oversight of that power. That’s exactly what’s happening at these universities.

“They are swearing in police officers, and then claiming that they don’t have to follow the laws of disclosure,” Carlson said.

The Atlanta-based law firm Barrett & Farahany brought the suit against Mercer. The firm is also representing a former Mercer student who was raped on campus. While investigating that case, the firm realized that Mercer does not employ security officers or guards, but actual police officers who hold the same authority as government-employed officers.

“The public has a fundamental right of access to the police reports and investigations to ascertain whether the public’s business is being conducted in accordance with state and federal law,” Barrett & Farahany wrote in its brief to the court. “[M]oreover, arbitrary interference with access to important information is an abridgement of the freedom of speech (and of the press) as protected by the First Amendment.”

Mercer had long refused to make public incident reports relating to sexual assaults on campus, claiming that Georgia’s Open Records Act did not apply to private universities.

According to the Mercer Police Department Web site, “All Mercer Police officers are certified by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council as having met the qualifications and training requirements for police officers in Georgia, and they are authorized to exercise law enforcement powers, including the power of arrest, on the campus.”

“Campus crime is the most serious thing student journalists cover and the hardest thing for them to get information on,” Carlson said. “Students need the knowledge to make more informed decisions. As a result, the campus will be safer.”

(Barrett & Farahany LLP v. The Corporation of Mercer University/Mercer University Police Department; Barrett Counsel: Amanda Farahany, Atlanta) MG

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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