More than 800 privately employed police officers in Ohio are authorized by the state to carry handguns, use deadly force and detain, search and arrest people.?
Yet state law allows the officers and their private-sector employers to keep arrest and incident reports secret, even from those they arrest and crime victims.?
And the public is not permitted to check the officers’ background or conduct records, including their use-of-force and discipline histories.
The private police work for 39 employers, largely private universities and hospitals, which are exempt from the public-records laws that allow Ohioans to monitor 32,808 public-sector police officers and their government agencies.
Critics, including Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, say it is past time to demand the same accountability and transparency from private-sector police by making them subject to the state’s public-records laws.
“The public policy is clear, that the state is giving them the same power as (public) police departments. For all other purposes, we should be treating them the same insofar as openness and giving the public information,” DeWine said.
“It’s hard to envision the legislature would intend private police to make an arrest and that they should be treated differently than a police officer for the city of Columbus,” he said.
DeWine said he will ask lawmakers to change Ohio law to make private police forces subject to public-records laws.
Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy records show 814 state-trained and -certified officers on the job with 17 hospitals and health-care systems, 16 private universities, three railroads, an arboretum and a bank. Laws permit the creation of private police forces but do not require them to follow public-records laws.
State law restricts private-university police to enforcing laws only on their campuses unless they have agreements with the government police in their host community authorizing them to make arrests off campus. Still, a state-certified officer is allowed to make a felony arrest anywhere, anytime.
In central Ohio, private police work for Capital, Denison, Ohio Wesleyan and Otterbein universities and two OhioHealth hospitals — Grant Medical Center and Riverside Methodist Hospital — as well as Fairfield Medical Center in Lancaster and Licking Memorial Hospital in Newark.
The Dispatch filed public-records requests with all 16 private university police departments in Ohio and the three Columbus-area hospital systems seeking copies of reports on arrests made by their officers in 2013.
Only Licking Memorial Hospital provided records. The remainder (with the exception of Ohio Wesleyan, which made no arrests) largely said they are private and have no legal duty to turn over records. Those seeking information on arrests instead must dig through voluminous court records.
Walsh University in North Canton provided the names of those arrested but turned over no records. While saying it was not required to do so, the University of Rio Grande in southern Ohio provided records but redacted or blacked out all student names.
“There is no accountability,” said Fred Gittes, a Columbus lawyer who has handled several cases involving police and public records. “They have the greatest power that society can invest in people — the power to use deadly force and make arrests.
“Yet, the public and public entities have no practical access to information about their behavior, eluding the ability to hold anyone accountable,” Gittes said. “Who is regulating these people? You’re not reporting to a professional overseer with a board of trustees.”
The role of private police, and the inability to access their records, has gained visibility amid a fight by Otterbein University student journalists to report on the activities of campus police at the Westerville school.
The university transformed its campus security force to a full-fledged police department in 2011, and student reporters since have fought unsuccessfully for access to reports they received at first, but which later were denied.
Westerville and Otterbein police have an agreement in which campus officers can write traffic tickets and enforce other laws on city streets running through and next to campus properties. Each force also agrees to respond and help the other when requested.
“It’s important to have those records to know about student safety,” said Evan Matsumoto, 22, a journalism major and editor of otterbein360.com, a student-operated news website, until he graduated last month.
The students struggled to report on a former theater professor criminally charged with placing his hands inside the pants of a female student because police would not release records.
They ultimately turned to the Westerville city prosecutor to get records about the charges, but he refused to turn them over until the student journalists fought his denial.
Lacking access to police records also makes it impossible to verify the university’s Clery Act numbers, a federally required report of crimes that occur on or near campus, said Matsumoto, now a newspaper reporter in Hickory, N.C.
The Dispatch also was unable to obtain records from campus police, which reported filing 60 cases in courts last year.
“Because Otterbein University is not a ‘public office’ for purposes (of state law) the documents you seek are not ‘public records’ and Otterbein will not provide them. … Although Otterbein’s police department arguably ‘performs a governmental function,’??” it fails an equivalence test established by an Ohio Supreme Court ruling because it is not funded or overseen by government, wrote John W. Herbert, a Worthington lawyer who represents Otterbein.
Otterbein spokeswoman Jennifer Pearce said campus police “focus on the safety and privacy rights of students” and are not an arm of city police. Pearce and representatives of other universities said information on crime is available through Clery Act reports and “crime logs” posted online. However, student reporters complain that such logs lack details and are incomplete.
Student journalists are considering taking Otterbein to court in hopes of placing Ohio among states such as Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Virginia that require private schools to make police records public. The Society of Professional Journalists legal defense fund gave the students $5,000 toward their potential court challenge.
Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said, “I think the public would be shocked that their communities are full of these secret police. They are exercising state government authority without the governmental oversight that is supposed to go with it.
“If you tell people it’s possible to be taken to jail without creating a public record trail beginning with the police, they would assume you are talking about North Korea, not Ohio,” he said.
DeWine said accountability must accompany a grant of police powers.
“Police power goes to the essential function of government. … When government gives private universities this police power and creates that power for its officers, it seems to me it is a compelling argument we treat them the same as we treat other police in terms of public records,” the attorney general said.