Like cops in any major city, campus police officers at many private universities carry guns and can arrest people on the spot. But since they don't work for taxpayers, the public can't always delve into the records of what they do and where they do it.
But that may be changing.
At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., an attorney is successfully prying open personnel records of the campus police department. In Georgia, 2006 legislation opened up police records at private universities to public view. In Massachusetts, the legislature is considering a similar bill.
Crime records at private universities are "the last major issue in terms of getting access to crime information," says S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, Inc., in King of Prussia, Pa.
For their part, private universities say they are not public agencies and must act to protect the privacy of students and staff. But critics argue that public relations play at least as big a role. "For PR purposes, colleges want to perpetuate the impression that their campuses are crime-free enclaves," says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., which supports college newspapers. "Honestly, no one believes that. Everyone believes that a campus with 20,000 or 30,000 young people on it is going to have some crime. It's not even an effective charade."
The intertwined issues of crime on campus and the right to privacy are in the spotlight after the shootings at Virginia Tech University in April 2007. In another tragedy last Thursday, a former student shot and killed five students and himself in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
Since 1990, all colleges that take part in federal financial aid programs – which is most of them – have been required to release annual reports about crime on campus, make crime logs available to the public, and provide warnings about imminent dangers. The law, called the Clery Act, was named after a student who was murdered in her dormitory at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University in 1986. Her parents founded Security on Campus to ensure that students would be alerted to on-campus crime.
But the act doesn't require colleges to release individual crime reports or police-department personnel files, and some private campuses decline to do so. At Harvard University, for instance, the campus police department regularly updates a crime log on its website, listing brief descriptions and general locations of incidents. But some entries are no longer than a sentence, and names are not released unless someone is arrested.
Steven Catalano, spokesman for Harvard University's police department, which employs a staff of more than 100, says making more information public would have a "chilling effect" on people's willingness to report potential problems.
In one case, Mr. Catalano says, a student who tried to commit suicide was later approached by a school newspaper reporter. If people on campus "felt that their privacy was going to be violated because our reports were public, I feel there would be less people calling us."
But Carter says that, in sensitive cases, Massachusetts state law would protect the privacy of those named in public records. "Why should [Harvard police] feel they should be treated differently than any other sworn police department?" he asks.
Not all recent rulings have been in favor of greater access. For example, the Harvard Crimson newspaper lost a lawsuit in 2006 demanding greater access to incident reports. (The paper wanted to review records in a student embezzlement case.) State legislation to expand access in Massachusetts was introduced in 2005 and will be considered during the current session. "Hopefully, the Yale case can shed some light on it, and bring it back to the forefront of people's minds," says Malcom Glenn, president of the Harvard Crimson.
In the Yale case, a public defender sought access to the personnel records of a police officer who pulled over a black teenager on suspicion of riding a bicycle on a sidewalk and filed an undisclosed charge against him. Janet Perrotti, the youth's attorney, suspected racial profiling. In a legal brief, the school argued that its campus police department is not the equivalent of a public agency. Last week, a state commission ruled against Yale.
"If you're going to dress like a cop and act like a cop, then you should be considered a cop and be held accountable," says Ms. Perrotti.