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Observer Editorial: Accessibility over appeasement

| Friday, January 22, 2016

Indiana House Bill 1022 (HB 1022) is steadily making its way through the legislative production line.

One Democrat and two Republican representatives co-sponsored the bill. It has been read twice on the House floor, referred to committee and passed with unanimous support. Sometime in the near future, representatives will vote on it and, if it passes, it will move on to the Senate.

If enacted, HB 1022 would require private university police departments to make all arrest or incarceration records accessible to the public.

Previously, under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), agencies such as Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) did not have to disclose records of any sort, despite being “fully authorized as a police agency by the State of Indiana,” according to NDSP’s website.

That tension between private records and public authority lies at the heart of an ongoing lawsuit ESPN filed against Notre Dame last year.

The sports media outlet sought police reports for several incidents involving student-athletes, but St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Steven Hostetler ruled in Notre Dame’s favor in April, denying ESPN access to the records. However, he wrote in his opinion, “there are indeed persuasive reasons why the statute should be amended to read the way ESPN desires.”

Around the time, State Rep. Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) said he would work to change the law so private university police forces would be subject to the same oversight given to public agencies, leading to his co-authorship of HB 1022.

There’s just one problem: The bill does not go all the way in fulfilling Bauer’s initial objective.

Several news organizations, including the South Bend Tribune and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, have written editorials recently detailing how the bill applies only to specific cases of criminal arrest, which rarely happen on college campuses. Other public police forces disclose blotters that “[include] the specific location of any crime, names and the general description of the alleged crime,” according to the Tribune.

We now add our voice in criticizing the bill as it is currently written. While some change is better than none at all, we cannot settle for half measures.

There is no reason NDSP, or any other private university police force, should be held less accountable than a public one. While NDSP may fall under University purview, the department has the same police authority accorded to the South Bend City Police, the Saint Joseph County Police and every other public police force in Indiana.

We understand some people are reluctant to make records accessible. Some argue such disclosure would be embarrassing and unnecessary, as old police reports, especially those concerning crimes that turn out to be unfounded, can haunt alumni years down the road, both professionally and personally.

But those who argue this point ignore two ideas that are essential for any free and functioning society.

The first is the idea that the public’s right to safety trumps personal privacy.

Certainly, no one on this Board would deny anyone’s right to privacy, and federal regulations prohibit Notre Dame from disclosing any student’s educational records without his or her consent. But when a crime is committed or an incident reported, a person’s right to privacy should never supersede the public’s right to educate themselves on the issues of crime and safety.

As the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette editorial board pointed out, because NDSP does not release records, Notre Dame students are provided “more privacy than the average citizen, or, for that matter, more than students at other universities.”

The most obvious example is just across the street from Notre Dame. Saint Mary’s falls under the jurisdiction of Saint Joseph County Police, not NDSP. Saint Mary’s students are not exempt from public access laws, and yet no one complains that public records laws violate their privacy or that federal regulations are being ignored.

The second idea is that accountability and transparency prevent those with power from abusing it.

As students, we are grateful to Notre Dame and NDSP for all they do. We have a relatively safe campus, guarded by officers who have our best interests at heart.

But we cannot let this appreciation stand in for genuine oversight and accountability. At a time when the nation is engaged in contentious debates over police brutality and accountability, it is vital to recognize that more disclosure is the key to building trust between the community and the people who protect it.

This is evident in the case of University of Cincinnati police officer Raymond Tensing, who fatally shot Samuel DuBose in the head after stopping him for driving without a front license plate on July 19. Tensing’s body camera captured video of the incident and released to the public.

The University of Cincinnati is part of Ohio’s state university system and, as such, has its own force of sworn and armed police officers — not unlike NDSP. Hamilton County prosecuting attorney Joseph T. Deters responded to the event by requesting the University police force be disbanded and the campus patrolled by Cincinnati Police Department. The University of Cincinnati case illustrates the downfall of a campus police system via one unchecked accountability issue.

Last year’s editorial board wrote that Notre Dame and NDSP should disclose police records not necessarily because the law prompted it, but as a moral obligation.

This year’s board agrees, but as the past 12 months have shown, Notre Dame’s administration will use legal means to continue to restrict the public’s access to records. So if NDSP will abide only by the law, and not by ethical considerations, the law must change.

However, the law must be changed fully, with no reservations or attempts to slow or limit the process. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what happened to HB 1022.

Bauer is a Notre Dame alumnus and currently serves on the board of directors for the Independent Colleges of Indiana, which includes Notre Dame. In an interview with The Observer last week, he said that while crafting the legislation, he met with Notre Dame several times and spoke with the chair of the Independent Colleges of Indiana.

A University spokesperson confirmed these meetings and said Notre Dame “offered its support, perspective and assistance” to the process.

So let’s just get this straight: A university being sued over an alleged violation of state law had a hand in writing a new bill that would directly amend that state law.

What could possibly go wrong?

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