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Newspaper Sues Police Dept.

Crimson seeks release of more detailed crime reports

By Hana R. Alberts, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Crimson filed suit against the University Wednesday, seeking to force the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) to release detailed crime reports.

The Crimson, which is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU), claims that HUPD officers are subject to state public records laws. Under these laws, the public can file public record requests for police reports, which include details of incidents, witness testimony and other observations from the scene.

Currently, HUPD releases only a police log containing brief descriptions of incidents.

Crimson President Amit R. Paley ’04 said the newspaper has requested incident reports for three years about matters ranging from racial profiling to sexual assault. The University has denied those requests, contending that since Harvard is a private institution, HUPD is not subject to the public records laws.

“We believe we have an obligation to our readers and community to report crime that happens here,” Paley said. “The only way to do that fully is to have access to these records…While we’d prefer to settle this and get access to records in an informal way, the University has left us no option but to fight for this legal principle in a court of law.”

In a brief statement issued Wednesday after the lawsuit was filed in Middlesex Superior Court, Harvard said administrators believe their “procedures are sound and proper and in full compliance with the law.”

ACLU staff attorney Sarah Wunsch contends that since HUPD officers are “special state police officers” deputized by Middlesex and Suffolk counties, they are subject to public records law.

“Any person with that kind of authority…need[s] to be subject to public oversight,” Wunsch said.

But because the University is a private institution operating a police force, HUPD officers may not qualify as agents of the state under this law, according to Dolores A. Stafford, President of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and Chief of Police at George Washington University.

“I don’t know of any federal laws requiring a private police department to release their records,” Stafford wrote in an e-mail. “They are still considered private agencies, even if they receive their police authority through the state.”

Harvard officials have 20 days from the filing date to respond to the suit.

Privacy and Information

University spokesperson Alan J. Stone argued that releasing detailed records that might contain revealing personal information about students and other University affiliates could violate their right to privacy.

Wunsch and Amber R. Anderson, the Boston-area attorney retained by the ACLU to represent The Crimson, said that under public records law, personal information of a victim can be blacked out on reports released to the public. Wunsch added that the ACLU advocates for individual privacy.

In the past, HUPD officials have raised the concern that releasing specific locations and physical descriptions of victims could hint at their identity and jeopardize their privacy.

Stafford argued that information disseminated in logs—including the date, time and location of an incident, along with a brief description—is enough to promote awareness of campus crime.

“I believe that this basic information is sufficient to notify the community about types of crimes that are occurring on campus,” Stafford said, adding that campus police must also inform the campus when serious crime threatens the community. “The actual police records do not need to be distributed publicly for that to happen.”

HUPD Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley said he has never kept information vital to campus security under wraps.

“We’ve never covered up anything on campus in my entire tenure here,” Riley said last month. “It was never anybody’s intent to hide anything.”

Howard K. Clery III, executive director of Security on Campus, said HUPD should be held to the same standard as Cambridge and Boston police. Those police departments also respond to some incidents at Harvard, and their complete reports detailing many serious crimes at Harvard are available.

Security on Campus, an advocacy organization that supports public knowledge of campus police procedures, was founded in 1987 by Clery’s father when his sister Jeanne was raped and murdered by a fellow student at Lehigh University.

Clery said his organization believes that everyone benefits from information about campus crime.

“The school can do a better job by knowing what’s happening where,” Clery said. “When you keep it secret, it makes perpetrators think they can get away with everything.”

Around the Region

Most other area schools have not faced similar controversies.

Police officials from Tufts, MIT, Northeastern, the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Boston College (BC) all said they publish the daily logs required by the Clery Act but do not release incident reports.

At all schools except BC, officials said they were not aware of any complaints filed about their policies or any public record requests for incident reports.

BC’s daily student paper, The Heights, considered a lawsuit last spring when they were denied access to Boston College Police Department (BCPD) incident reports.

Editor-in-Chief Nancy E. Reardon said that when BCPD officers and Eagle EMS, a student emergency medical services group, were assisting a person injured in a car accident, local paramedics were slow to respond and claimed someone had called to cancel the ambulance.

“The BCPD alleged Eagle EMS canceled it, and Eagle EMS alleged it was BCPD,” Reardon said. “There has been a lot of tension between [the two groups].”

Eagle EMS was forced to disband until 2004 because of BCPD accusations, she said.

The suspension led The Heights to request an incident report to determine who had canceled the ambulance. Their request was denied.

“We thought [denying our request] was very suspicious,” Reardon said. “Over the course of the summer, several editors and I have continued conversations regarding the possibility of a legal route to obtain the requested information.”

BC Director of Public Relations Jack Dunne said the BCPD does not release entire reports, and added they believe this is in compliance with the law.

“Yes, we agree with the Harvard administration. It’s the same policy that BC adheres to here,” he said. “The federal law is clear on this matter.”

In 1981, The Heights filed a suit against the University requesting access to campus police logs, and the following year they were awarded free access to the police logs.

Reardon also said the Boston University newspaper, The Daily Free Press, had gone to court at the same time for access to police logs.

“Members of The Daily Free Press were arrested because they refused to leave police station without logs they’d requested,” she said.

The Boston University Police Department could not be reached for comment.

In Virginia, a student case against a University also resulted in access to public records—though the lawsuit itself failed.

The student newspaper at the University of Richmond also sued their college for access to police records, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

Although they lost the suit, Virginia state law was revised the following year to require private University police to make the records available.

Goodman said The Crimson’s case might be strong enough to win.

“These cases depend on the language of the law,” he said. “The fact is this case, based on my reading of the state law, is a very compelling case.”

This is not the first time HUPD has been encouraged by The Crimson to disseminate more information.

Joshua A. Gerstein ’91-’92, a former Crimson crime reporter, helped legislators revise a state law to include university police forces among the organizations that must file daily police logs.

“I don’t think students should be entitled to any more or any less privacy than anyone else,” Gerstein said. “Let’s extend the rules. If HUPD has police powers and can walk around with guns on hips and can arrest people, they ought to be under same safeguards that all other police are subject to.”

—Sabrina Gusmorino and Heloisa L. Nogueira contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Hana R. Alberts can be reached at alberts@fas.harvard.edu.

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