Police departments at Illinois private universities get pass on releasing data

University of Chicago Police Department

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Two states—Ohio and Texas –recently required police departments operated by private universities to open their records to the public. Illinois could have become the third.

But it didn’t happen.

As in most states, private university police departments in Illinois are not required to release information such as arrest records, data on field contacts or dispatch tapes to the public.

A bill introduced in the General Assembly in February would have mandated police departments at private colleges and universities that have full police powers—like the ones run by Northwestern University and The University of Chicago—to release such records, just as state and municipal police are required to do under open records laws. The bill passed the Illinois House unanimously in April but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee before the legislative session ended in late May.

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25), whose district includes most of U of C’s campus and several surrounding neighborhoods, introduced the legislation after students and residents demanded more accountability from the private university police force.

A student group, the Campaign for Equitable Policing, allege that university police officers have engaged in racial profiling, and they called on the university to release records on the race and gender of individuals stopped and questioned. The police department’s jurisdiction extends well beyond the Hyde Park campus, stretching from 37th to 64th streets between Cottage Grove Avenue to Lake Shore Drive, an area that includes a number of majority-black neighborhoods.

Currie said the bill stalled during debate on whether those seeking information could sue private universities if their records requests were denied, an option available to those seeking records from public entities under the Freedom of Information Act.

“I think the private universities were unwilling from day one to open themselves up to people taking them to court [over police records],” she said.

Some lawmakers agreed, calling it a “slippery slope” to requiring private universities to open all their books to the public, even those not police-related, Currie said.

Currie’s bill died in committee just as Texas and Ohio joined a short list of states—North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia—that require private university police to comply with open records laws.

A similar bill in Texas was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 1. It goes into effect Sept. 1. That law obligates private universities with police departments to release information to the public “relating solely to law enforcement activities.” The inclusion of that phrase helped the bill gain critical support from Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, which represents the state’s private colleges.

In Ohio, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-to-3 decision in late May that the police department of Otterbein University, a small, private liberal arts college outside Columbus, is a public office for purposes of the state’s public records act.

“[The campus police department] exercises a function of government, namely the basic police power of enforcing laws and maintaining the peace within its jurisdiction,” the justices wrote. “Its officers therefore have the power to search and confiscate property, to detain, search and arrest persons, and to carry deadly weapons.”

In response to demands by student activists and Currie’s bill, The University of Chicago in June began releasing daily reports on traffic stops and field interviews by its officers on the school’s public safety website, following through on a promise made in April.

“The concerns that are addressed in the new updated website are the same concerns that influenced HB3932,” university officials wrote in a statement emailed to the Reporter, referring to Currie’s bill. “We have worked with Reps. Currie and [Christian] Mitchell’s offices, as well as other elected officials and will continue to work with them to ensure transparency on UCPD activities.”

Currie said she believes that a law is still the best way to guarantee that private university police forces are held to the same standard of accountability as municipal police departments. She plans to reintroduce the bill in the fall session.

“Some people believe that we don’t need legislation because the University is stepping up to the plate,” she said. “I believe that we do, because the University can step back down.”

Graphic by Sarah Turbin

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Survey of Campus Law Enforcement Agencies, 2011-12 (Click to enlarge.)

Correction: An earlier version of this graphic incorrectly referred to police departments. Not all of the law enforcement agencies on the list are certified as police departments.