South Bend Tribune

The Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling that the University of Notre Dame’s campus police department is not a “public agency” under Indiana law deals a strong blow to transparency.

The decision frees Notre Dame and other private colleges with police forces from any obligation to provide details on campus police reports and investigations. City, county and other professional forces are required to do so under the state’s Access to Public Records Act.

ESPN sued Notre Dame after the university denied ESPN access to campus police records related to student athletes, citing its status as a private university. In March, an Indiana appeals court ruled that Notre Dame’s police department is a public agency and subject to the state’s open records laws. Notre Dame appealed the decision to Indiana’s high court.

The South Bend Tribune had filed briefs in support of ESPN. Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt had issued two advisory opinions finding the incident reports and logs kept by the campus security police department are public records. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller had also supported ESPN, arguing that Notre Dame’s Security Police Department operates under the authority of state law.

“The notion that a police department exercising these core state powers can be shielded from public scrutiny by dint of its affiliation with a private university is antithetical to the important policy interests underlying the Access to Public Records Act,” Zoeller wrote.

In a surprising twist in the case, the Indiana General Assembly, perhaps inadvertently, changed the state’s APRA definition of a “public agency” to include a private university police department. The change, which involves two bills related to police agencies, has been in effect since July 1. Since then, the public records law has applied to professional police departments at private universities including Notre Dame, according to some legal experts.

We have little faith, however, that legislators will let this change stand once the 2017 session begins. That’s a shame, because news organizations aren’t asking for anything extraordinary in seeking more information from private institutions. It’s information already accessible from the state’s public universities. Police departments that operate under the same laws using the same powers granted by the state — including carrying guns and making arrests — shouldn’t be treated differently.

Why is this case and this concept important? Not because of some desire to dig up information about students and student-athletes. Rather, it’s because hundreds of thousands of people visit Notre Dame each year. The Notre Dame Security Police department is entrusted with ensuring public safety. The public should have a view of how the department works and the cases it handles.

This new twist in the police records issue further emphasizes the need for lawmakers to step up and support, in words and action, the principle that the public has a right to accountability and transparency whenever — and wherever — such police power is being exercised.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.