Arrest and crime reports compiled by police officers at private universities and hospitals would be converted from secret to public under a bill introduced yesterday by a pair of Ohio lawmakers.
More than 800 privately employed police officers in Ohio are authorized by the state to carry handguns and make arrests, but — unlike public departments and officers — are not required to provide records to the public.
The bill introduced by Reps. Heather Bishoff, D-Blacklick, and Michael Henne, R-Clayton, would make private police forces, including at 17 nonprofit hospitals and 16 private universities, subject to Ohio’s public-records laws.
Critics of the current system, including Attorney General Mike DeWine, say the same accountability and transparency demanded of government police departments through the availability of public records should be required of private-sector police.
“If private and public officers have the same arrest powers, then they all should play by the same rules,” Bishoff said.
Henne said private police have a duty to inform the public. “When you are making arrests and crimes are occurring against the public, the public has a right to know,” he said.
DeWine’s office is studying the bill to determine whether it will support the measure or seek a separate bill with another sponsor, a spokesman said.
“We have addressed his concerns and call to action,” Bishoff said.
The bill was prompted by a story in The Dispatch detailing the growth of private police and fights by student journalists at Otterbein University to get campus police records at the Westerville school, she said.
C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, said the organization’s presidents and police chiefs are concerned about the bill’s potential impact.
Making records public would reveal the names of victims, making them less likely to report crimes, particularly in sexual-assault cases, he said.
The group also worries that private schools could be held legally liable for monetary damages for slanderous and libelous material in police records, Jones said. Public records generally are immune from such claims.
Some private universities could opt to disband their police departments rather than turn over records and thus deprive smaller communities of the presence and assistance of campus police, Jones said.
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association (of which The Dispatch is a member), said the group supports “giving citizens access to information they are entitled to have regarding police activities.”
Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland, previously introduced a bill to make public the records of nonprofit police departments and private universities that have agreements with their host cities to make arrests off campus.
Citing student privacy concerns, Patmon said his bill would allow university police forces without off-campus arrest powers to keep their records secret.
By Randy Ludlow - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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