Massachusetts Campus Police Records: Hidden From Public View

Police Department records are public documents. Though not everyone knows that, many people do. That’s a good thing, because, for obvious reasons, we wouldn’t want Police Departments to operate in secrecy. Not only do police departments keep their daily logs public – which are abbreviated, digested descriptions of police activity, they must also make the full records of those incidents, which are much lengthier than a simple log entry, public upon request.

So you’d think that the same laws would apply to Massachusetts college & university campus police departments, right? If you said “yes,” you’d be wrong.

While M.G.L. Ch. 66, Sec. 10 allows a citizen to request records of a public agency,  the fact is that a little-known separate statute, M.G.L. Ch. 4, Sec. 7 (26)  specifically exempts private colleges and university police departments from making their records public information. And the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has affirmed this, in a lawsuit brought several years ago by the Harvard Crimson, that school’s student newspaper. The SJC made it very clear: The Massachusetts public records statute does not apply to campus police records at private schools.

Why is this so? Essentially, the lobbying organization that represents private colleges and universities (the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities In Massachusetts) successfully convinced the Massachusetts Legislature , quite some time ago, to exempt campus police departments from this law. Which begs a follow-up question: Why would private colleges and universities be so concerned about keeping their campus police records private? Answer: Because a lot of nasty things and unsafe things can happen on college campuses – things that affect the safety and well-being of its students – and these schools don’t want students and their parents to know about it. Let’s face it: A college or university is selling a product – a degree of some sort – in a competitive environment. The student (and/or the student’s family) is the consumer. If there’s bad news connected to the product being marketed (in this case, a university degree,) that school is not going to want that information made public.

That’s not to say that private colleges and universities in Massachusetts can refuse to ever say anything about crime of their campuses.   Certain federal and state laws require any Massachusetts colleges or universities receiving federal financial aid to publish an “annual statistical report” of campus crime, as well as keep a daily log in their campus police offices. But that annual report is very general, and provides almost no specifics about criminal incidents that have occurred on campus.   Furthermore, as a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, I’d estimate that about 80% of students and their parents have never heard of such a required annual report, and wouldn’t know how to get it.

Obviously, this is a transparency issue, and there are two sides to the debate. Proponents of greater transparency of college campus police records argue that making those records available is in the public and consumers’ interests. Private colleges and universities argue the opposite: That private schools already make their daily campus police logs available to the public.   But there are two obvious problems with that argument:  1) Daily police logs reflect only the briefest, most basic information – nothing extensive or especially detailed; and 2) Public universities, such as UMass Boston and UMass Amherst, already make their campus police records – full records – available to the public. So why should private schools be exempt?

This is no small issue.  Legally, Massachusetts campus police officers are classified as “special state police officers,” and their numbers are not exactly small: In Greater Boston area alone, there are 21 private colleges and universities. Statewide, there are over 1,500 such police officers employed in Massachusetts – the vast majority of them at universities and colleges.  Changes to this law are now being debated on Beacon Hill: Legislation proposed by state representative Kevin Honan would amend the existing public records law to include private colleges and universities in Massachusetts. There will be quite a battle behind closed doors on Beacon Hill about this issue.

As a Massachusetts college student crime lawyer, I see advantages and disadvantages to changing this law, but I’m most concerned about the damage that Massachusetts college students can suffer, when they’ve been arrested or accused by campus police for a crime, and are later exonerated. In that event, those records should be made public if that innocent student wished that. Currently, Massachusetts private colleges and universities can refuse to release any records.