12/13/2010 04:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Push to Open Campus Police Reports at Mass. Private Universities

After an alleged rape at a Tufts University fraternity house was reported Halloween weekend, Tufts police e-mailed students within two days and posted fliers. The campus alert did not include details such as the fraternity's name, which police gave the student newspaper three weeks later.

Across the country, many universities like Tufts use an array of electronic tools to quickly inform students of public safety threats. Boston University police use Twitter, while Harvard and MIT post a crime blotter on their web sites. Others text students or send e-bulletins for serious threats such as assaults or armed robbery.

Yet for a college student in Massachusetts seeking to find out more about an on-campus crime -- or a neighbor who lives close to one of Boston's sprawling universities -- gaining access to campus police reports is a crap shoot. Walk down Columbus Avenue to the Northeastern police and you may be told to set up an appointment to review the daily log. Ditto at UMass Boston. And campus police often hand-pick which incident reports student journalists can view and release filtered details about serious crimes.

Each private college or university in the Bay State sets its own policy on providing crime reports to the public. And there's the rub, according to campus safety advocates. Whether you attend a public or private college, campus police at either are sworn in as special State Police officers. Publicly-funded universities like UMass are supposed to provide full disclosure of police reports in compliance with state public records law, and advocates want the privates to do the same.

Massachusetts is on the leading wave in a campaign to open up the private universities -- only Connecticut and Georgia so far require them to provide campus incident reports. "Major universities with sworn police are investigating serious crimes but not turning over information," said S. Daniel Carter, public policy director at Security On Campus, Inc., a national advocacy group. "As far as we know, there are no states that specifically make private universities with state sworn police officers disclose reports. It is sort of the last frontier in the campus public records battles."

Supporters of a campus crime information bill that's languished in the Massachusetts Legislature say it would improve public safety with more transparency and accountability. The bill coincides with the recent 20th anniversary of the Clery Act, the federal law requiring colleges to make public crime reports and yearly crime statistics. The law is named after Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered while sleeping in her dorm room in 1986. Her parents formed a non-profit dedicated to making campuses safer after learning that students were not told about the 38 violent crimes that occurred on the Lehigh campus during the three years prior to Jeanne's murder.

"I don't believe there is any rationale reason for the exact same crime being a public record at the Medford police and a private record at Tufts," said Rep. Carl Sciortino, D-Medford, a bill sponsor whose district includes most of Tufts, where the campus borders "blur" with local neighborhoods.

"We've singled out the private university police departments for non-disclosure, and I think that's a mistake. Clearly disclosure works at all levels."

The measure is opposed by Harvard University and other colleges represented by the Assn. of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. AICUM says there would be no public safety benefit since universities already provide "vast amounts of information" in their daily logs. AICUM President Richard Doherty also warned legislators the bill would have a chilling effect on the willingness of students and friends to share sensitive information with campus police.

He gave as an example a "well-being check" by police after receiving a call from a parent concerned about not hearing from a student. "In this You Tube and Facebook era, disclosing such information for public consumption unnecessarily exposes a student to unwanted harassment and scorn," Doherty said.

Proponents say those concerns are exaggerated. They point to well-established privacy protections in public records statutes covering medical information, names of sexual assault victims and details of ongoing investigations. "We're not going after note-taking by campus police, we're looking at law enforcement stuff, crime," said John Doherty, a longtime advocate for public disclosure of campus incidents. "If UMass police take notes on students for some discipline problem, the bill does not look at that. That's what they sort of continue to make up and state, their concern that all interactions between campus police and students would be jeopardized."

John Doherty is a founding member of Security On Campus, Inc., the non-profit started by Jeanne Clery's parents, Howard and Connie Clery (he is also Howard Clery's second cousin). The Clerys, along with Doherty and editors of the Harvard Crimson, led the fight 20 years ago requiring Bay State universities to open up basic crime data, which Harvard and AICUM fought. Massachusetts' Campus Daily Crime Law, which passed in 1991, became the model for federal Clery Act amendments mandating campus police everywhere to share their police logs. Still, current Massachusetts law exempts the private colleges from releasing more detailed incident reports not covered by the Clery Act. "This fight is mainly about the campus police report," Doherty said. "All we're asking is those private schools be treated the same as publics."

The proposal is backed by Secretary of State William Galvin, a Boston College neighbor who has objected to the expansion of dorms near his home. "Tragic events have illustrated the significant impact public safety  incidents on campuses can have on these neighboring communities," he wrote in 2009. Galvin calls it contradictory for campus police at private colleges -- who enjoy the same status as public college police -- to withhold crime records occurring "in educational institution communities."

"I think they should have the same rules that we follow," agreed Stan Stewart, Acting Police Chief at UMass Boston. "We're a public institution. Everything that happens here has to go into our log."

At Northeastern, a campus that continues to spread into the South End and Roxbury, the university warns students of serious crimes by cell phone, email and text messaging, and gives regular reports on crime trends and prevention on its web-based SafeNet. A weekly crime log is also published in the student newspaper. Yet the information flow is tightly controlled by NU police and its communication staff.
To obtain crime reports, student journalists meet with the associate director of public safety, James Ferrier, who reads a selection of incidents. "They are digitalized so he reads the basic information from the computer and we do not see the actual report," said Jenna Duncan, news editor of the Huntington News. "Basically, he reads off most incidents on campus to a reporter who has weekly appointments set up with him, however, assault, rape and more serious incidents are not given to us. I've talked to Jim about it before and his logic is to protect privacy, and these sorts of incidents are not common."

Another NU student, Taylor Dobbs, a transfer from UVM, said he feels safe on campus all the time. "I have yet to feel threatened at all and I walk around campus at all hours of the night throughout the week," he said. Still, Dobbs suggested campus crime reporting might be more transparent if the NUPD had a website that they posted incidents on.

Neither Ferrier nor university spokeswoman Renata Nyul responded to requests for an interview about NU's crime reporting procedures. During a stop one recent Monday morning to the NU police, a journalist was told the public police log was unavailable and to make an appointment with Ferrier after contacting the university's communications office. Later that day, Nyul called it "a misunderstanding" and said the public log would be available next time.

Even at UMass Boston, the daily police log was withheld at first from a visitor. "I can't give it to you. It's against our policy," Lt. Patricia McBride said. She said she was concerned about disclosing possible confidential information such as criminal records and birth dates, and suggested to try the police chief.

Contacted later, UMB's Chief Stewart acknowledged the daily log including names and birth dates of arrested suspects is publicly accessible. He said that information is always provided to UMass student journalists once a week, and "this seems to be the first year they are using it" for publication.

Officials at Northeastern are not alone in their reluctance to discuss public access to campus crime reports. Campus police chiefs and others at MIT, BU and BC declined to answer questions by e-mail or telephone.

After a stabbing last fall of a Boston College senior on campus, some BC students complained of being kept in the dark by official school channels. While students learned about the early morning fracas on Facebook and the media clamored for news before a parents weekend football game against Virginia Tech, the college failed to send students an emergency alert. "It was a cover-up, an attempt to hide the truth," one student, John Kinzer, blogged on the school newspaper's site.

BC spokesman Jack Dunn declined to address the university's response to the Sept. 25 stabbing incident. Jeremiah Hegarty, the student who was stabbed in the abdomen, underwent surgery and later returned to school. The campus newspaper BC Observer criticized the university in an editorial, saying while violent assaults on campus are rare, "they are serious enough to warrant a school-wide notification," especially when a suspect remained at large afterwards. "If simple disagreements can escalate that quickly in the Mods (the dorm area where the attack occurred), students should be aware of the danger by being informed of past incidents." Observer editor Jesse Naiman said the editorial speaks for itself.

An unwillingness to disclose crime reports is not limited to colleges in Boston. In 2008 the Student Press Law Center checked Framingham State College and Merrimack College in its survey of all 50 states. Framingham State officials took 14 days to provide a daily crime log and almost three weeks to turn over a redacted incident report. Merrimack College police provided a log in two days but after two weeks withheld an incident report, the center found.

The issue occasionally becomes national news when a university tries to cover up a rape. Recently Marshal University police in West Virginia were criticized for apparently keeping two sets of police logs -- one for federal records, and another for student journalists -- the second of which contained no mention of an alleged gang rape that took place in September in a freshman dorm, The Charleston Gazette reported. "It's certainly an issue that's recurring in states across the country," Carter said.

The Massachusetts bill stalled in the House before the election but recently was under further review. Wayne Weikel, chief of staff for Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Murphy, D-Burlington, said the committee was still gathering information. The Clerys made a personal appeal for Murphy's support, as he attended Villanova in 1986 when Jeanne Clery's funeral was held on that campus. Murphy did not respond to requests to speak about the Clery's appeal or state his position on the crime information bill.

Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security on Campus, Inc., urged lawmakers to "see which way the wind is blowing when it comes to disclosure and campus community safety. This is really about Massachusetts continuing to take the lead when it comes down to education," he said. "You can't have a good learning environment without being a safe one."

No arrest has been made in connection with the alleged rape at Tufts' Sigma Nu fraternity on Oct. 29, which is being investigated by both campus and Medford police, according to the Middlesex County District Attorney's office. Tufts spokeswoman Kim Thurler confirmed details of when students were alerted, but neither the university nor Medford police commented on when Tufts police reported the incident to Medford or Somerville. The fraternity is actually located in Somerville.

Sciortino, the local state representative, hopes the crime bill will improve information sharing among police departments. He pointed to an apparent communication gap during a rash of sexual assaults near Tufts in 2007 as an example.  

During one month that spring, five women including two Tufts students were sexually assaulted near or on the fringe of its Medford-Somerville campus. Students and other residents of the Hillside area lived in fear of a serial sexual assaulter. The first incident was reported to Tufts police after a student was forced to the ground by a man who pretended to need directions. Medford police made an arrest five weeks later after receiving a tip, and officials credited a task force of Tufts, Medford and Somerville police for their coordination. However, the task force did not form until after the fourth and most serious attack -- three weeks after the first -- when a woman was threatened with a knife and sexually assaulted twice, according to past media reports, including a chronology in the student-reported Tufts Daily.

Nicolas Chacon, then 19, later pled guilty to aggravated rape, kidnapping and other charges and is serving a 15-year sentence in state prison. Sciortino, who has questions about the timeline and disclosure, planned to review the case with police.

"My question about it back then was were there repeated incidents that the Tufts police were aware of that local police were not -- and I don't know the answer to that -- and what triggers the university police to notify the community police about something?" Sciortino said. "What is the threshold by which they share information? I think that question is partially addressed by having public disclosure at the outset."

Ken Brack is a freelance writer based south of Boston.