Request for campus police records stirs controversy

by Megan Sacia, News Writer

A Superior Court judge in Macon, Ga., ruled Mercer University must release its campus crime records held by the university’s police department Jan. 26, after a complaint from a former Mercer student. The oral ruling departs from all previous legal precedents but was made so the institution, though private, would comply with Georgia’s open-record laws.

The complaint came from Amanda A. Farahany, an Atlanta lawyer who represents a former Mercer student who claimed she was raped on the Mercer campus in 2000. Originally Farahany’s requests for records pertaining to sexual assault dating back to the early ’90s were repeatedly denied. The university refused on the grounds that its police force is a private institution and should be exempt from open-record laws.

Houston County Superior Court Judge L.A. McConnell, Jr., however, disagreed, saying the department’s personnel are not security guards, but sworn police officers who have the same tasks and authority as any other police officers under Georgia law.

The ruling also struck down Mercer’s argument that the university’s police force does not perform public tasks. The state of Georgia trains and certifies every officer in the state through its Georgia Police Officer Standards and Training Council, and each officer then has the ability to carry a gun, make arrests and charge people with crimes.

Mercer has countered these rulings, arguing the school’s crime reports can be found on the university website. They also claim they complied with all existing federal crime-statistics laws.

John Dowling, University of Wisconsin Senior University Legal Counsel, said such incidents rarely occur in public universities.

“The case in Georgia is interesting and unusual, but it doesn’t really apply to the University of Wisconsin, since we are a public institution. We are governed by the Wisconsin Open Records Act so that our records can be public, to a certain extent, and under varying circumstances — this excludes academic records,” Dowling said. “Under certain circumstances, the dean of students could also obtain records if they were to be taking disciplinary action.”

Todd Kuschel, UW assistant police chief, said student records are available, with some exceptions.

“Generally, if it is an open case, we don’t release these records. If it is a finished case, you can access the records, but again there are exceptions,” Kuschel said, adding the department does not release victims’ names or information that could endanger campus security. “These are broad examples of records that aren’t always available.”

Though Mercer plans to appeal the ruling, Farahany has already requested more than a decade’s worth of records from the university.

Similar disputes over campus police records have occurred on other college campuses, including Harvard, Taylor and Cornell. Each institution denied requests to release information.