On a recent Sunday, MIT students began receiving text alerts about an “active shooter.” Updates from MIT and Cambridge police quickly corrected that, saying a shooting had left a young woman wounded, but it was a few blocks from campus.
Both police forces investigated, but only the Cambridge Police Department’s report on the incident was a matter of public record.
Campus police can carry weapons, make arrests, and use force, just as any city or town officer can. Yet courts have ruled that campus police at private colleges and universities are exempt from the full sweep of the Massachusetts public records law, which requires government agencies to release most documents upon request, including police reports.
Legislation pending on Beacon Hill would change that.
State Representative Kevin Honan’s bill would revise the public records statute to expressly cover law enforcement records of all campus police. Honan, a Brighton Democrat, sees the measure as a matter of consumer choice as much as public interest.
“It’s important for parents and students, when choosing a college, to have accurate crime statistics at their disposal,” Honan said.
Transparency advocates say that because campus police have authority over students and nonstudents alike, their reports should be public. That is already the case at the University of Massachusetts Boston and other public institutions.
“Just because these officers have the name of a college on their cruiser doesn’t mean they should be allowed to operate in secrecy,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Universities contend that there is no public safety argument for bringing private university police under the public records statute, because certain records such as daily crime logs are already open to the public. Logs contain basic information, including the date, time, and location of an incident and the names of anyone arrested, while full reports have a more detailed narrative.
The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, whose members include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and nearly 60 other institutions of higher learning, testified against the bill in May. Robert McCarron, the association’s senior vice president, said the proposal may have a “chilling effect” on students’ willingness to go to campus police with information, thus undermining safety.
“Will a fellow student or professor share any concerns about another student’s erratic behavior if the information provided to campus police could appear in the school newspaper the following week?” McCarron asked.
The proposal to extend the public records law to campus police sits before a joint committee. It is unclear whether it will be taken up this year.
Six states — Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia — have opened all campus police reports to the public, either by court order or by legislation, according to the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Campus police in Massachusetts are empowered as “special state police officers,” a category that includes police employed by hospitals and railroads. As of June, 1,500 special state police officers were at work across Massachusetts, the vast majority at colleges and universities.
Twenty-one private colleges in Greater Boston have campus police forces. Harvard has 77 sworn officers, followed by Boston University with 67 (plus an additional 29 officers for its medical campus), and MIT with 59 officers. Wheelock College, which has fewer than 1,000 undergraduates, employs a single sworn officer.
In July 2013, Massachusetts’ top court ruled that campus police jurisdiction encompasses areas where students, faculty, and campus visitors “might be exposed to danger.”
No event illustrated the extent of campus law enforcement responsibility more dramatically than the Boston Marathon bombings and ensuing manhunt in 2013. After the slaying of MIT Officer Sean Collier, police from MIT, Harvard, and BU were among the hundreds of law enforcement officers who “self-deployed.”
In June, after the shooting of a knife-wielding suspect by State Police near its campus, BU police rejected a request for reports filed by its responding officers. Detective Lieutenant Peter DiDomenica responded that the BU Police Department would release the report only under subpoena.
Massachusetts case law supports this interpretation. In a suit brought by the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in January 2006 that the public records statute does not cover university police at private schools.
Massachusetts defines a public record as any document produced by a state or local government employee. A plain reading of the statute, the court reasoned, excludes police employed by nongovernmental bodies.
Federal and state law mandate certain disclosures by campus police, even at private universities. Under the federal Clery Act, educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance must publish an annual statistical report on campus crime, as well as a daily crime log open to the public. (Massachusetts law likewise requires all police departments to maintain a public log.)
All 21 Greater Boston colleges with police publish their annual Clery reports online, a review of those reports shows. But only Harvard and MIT post crime logs to their public safety websites, while police at Simmons College and Wheelock maintain handwritten logs. Ten institutions refused to send copies of their daily logs by e-mail, and a handful more did so only after numerous inquiries.
Some colleges allow people to view blotters only in person.
“The institute does not send out — electronically or otherwise — copies of its log sheets,” said Wentworth Institute of Technology spokesman Dennis Nealon.
College police departments that refused to send copies of daily crime logs include Berklee College of Music, Boston College, Boston University, Curry College, Emmanuel College, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Simmons, Tufts University, Wentworth, and Wheelock.
Tufts provided photocopies of its logs during an onsite review at the Medford campus. All other colleges allowed photographs to be taken of their logs, but refused to provide printouts or other copies. This included BU police, who allow the public to access their electronic crime database via a computer kiosk in the lobby.
BU’s police department did not respond to inquiries about why its crime logs can be viewed in digital format onsite but are not provided by e-mail.
Still, campus police departments said that transparency remains a core goal.
“We in campus policing strive to be transparent in our dealings with our campus communities not only because of the obligations imposed under Title IX and the Clery Act, but also because this is the most effective way to accomplish our campus public safety mission,” said Suffolk University’s police chief, Chip Coletta, whose department provided its logs upon request by e-mail.
This investigation was done for the Globe in collaboration with MuckRock, a Boston company that specializes in obtaining government documents through records requests. Shawn Musgrave is also a fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. He can be reached email@example.com.