Woodhull House does not look like a typical police station. The G Street headquarters of the University Police Department is surprisingly non-descript. A color-splashed art-deco sculpture sits on the lawn and only one sign identifies it as the offices of the University’s law enforcement agency.
And UPD, an agency whose officers are commissioned by the Metropolitan Police Department, has little governmental oversight and is not held to the same standards as a municipal police department.
Despite its unbridled jurisdiction on GW owned, operated and leased land, and its ability to arrest and carry weapons, the department’s records remain under lock and key. MPD’s incident reports are available to anyone for viewing at police stations. But UPD’s policy is to keep reports completely private – creating a layer of privacy between the department’s inner workings and the community it serves.
And the policy, which has gone wholly unchallenged at universities nationwide, is beginning to get attention. The Freedom of Information Commission in Connecticut ruled last month that since the Yale Police Department can exercise “full police power” in New Haven, Conn., it is the equivalent of a public agency. The Harvard Crimson, Harvard University’s daily newspaper, failed in its lawsuit to force the police department to open its records but appeals could overturn that decision.
“The bottom line is we are police officers, nobody is denying that,” said University Police Chief Dolores Stafford, a 16-year veteran of the department. “But our records are incident records that will not show up on your record.”
There is no federal or D.C. law that would preclude the University from making incident reports public. Experts argue that they should be open to inspection so the department’s policies and procedures are transparent. There is no downside, said John Kassa, the director of the watchdog group Security on Campus.
Some information is released to the community. Under the Clery Act, a federal law passed in 1990, universities are required to provide a crime log, timely warnings of threats and an annual security report to the community. Stafford’s department goes above and beyond what it is required to give, listing crimes outside of the geographical jurisdiction mandated by Congress and providing more detailed statistics.
Kassa said the Clery Act is a good start but it is “common sense” that students and families should have every piece of information available about a college campus before making a decision about enrollment.
“As a consumer of anything, wouldn’t you want to make an informed decision?” Kassa said. “You live, work or go to school there. You absolutely want to know and be aware of your surroundings.”
Stafford said her opinion that the records should be private is two-pronged. During college years, she said students are learning “inside and out of the classroom.” She also said her department is a private agency despite its commissioning by MPD.
“I guess I was a student once,” Stafford said. “I don’t think that who was involved in a minor incident on campus is germane to you as another student protecting yourself.”
But many experts said the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act protects what is meant to be private: student education and judicial records. Some say the fact that one is a student does not translate into the right to privacy. If an 18-year-old was arrested by MPD, the records would be public.
When asked if MPD records should be public, Stafford said, “I didn’t make that decision.”
The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, an organization Stafford chaired for five years, has no official position on disclosure of police records. In its “openness of operation” statement, the organization said campus law enforcement agencies “must not be shrouded in secrecy” and there should be “public disclosure of policy and openness on matters of public interest.”
If UPD’s records were public, the University community would know that Adam Kokesh, a graduate student, was stopped by UPD and immediately allowed to proceed while he hung the satirical Muslim posters in October.
As case law begins to develop across the country challenging the right for commissioned police departments to remain closed, the Student Press Law Center is at the center of many of the cases. The Arlington, Va., based organization becomes involved in many of these disputes.
Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the SPLC, said there is little question that UPD acts as a police force because they can proceed against non-University individuals inside the boundaries of campus.
“When a police department is exercising law enforcement powers that are delegated to them by a governmental agency or entity, then they are standing in the shoes of the public agency,” LoMonte said.”Their records should be open as the city of Washington’s records are.”
Kassa called GW’s policy “counting bodies on the other side of a cliff.”
“If the crime is so bad that it needs to be hidden, why would you want to live in that community?” Kassa said. “If it is as safe as they say they are, what’s the problem with letting that information out? It comes down to good old community policing.”
But Stafford said private police agencies’ records should remain closed. And she said she is comfortable with the way her officers do business.
“I can say with a straight face that I think we are doing it really well,” Stafford said. “I think we are as open as we can be.”
This article appeared in the March 10, 2008 issue of the Hatchet.