Private police records could be made public

Two new bills introduced in the Ohio House would require police forces employed by hospitals and private colleges and universities to open up their arrest and crime records to the public.

Unlike public law enforcement entities, such as city police departments and county sheriff’s offices, privately employed police entities are currently exempt from public records requests.

Locally, the bills have the potential to impact the availability of records from the Marietta College Police and from the private security employed by the Memorial Health System, both of which had officials who expressed concern about the change.

Opening the college’s incident reports would make little difference procedurally, said Marietta College Chief of Police James Weaver.

However, Weaver worried that people might be less likely to report crimes if there is the possibility their name and account might not remain private.

“I do see people not reporting as often, and that is a concern. I do want our students, faculty, and staff to report it if there is a crime,” he said.

The college police filed 286 reports in 2013, he said.

Currently, Marietta College Police would only be affected under House Bill 429, which was introduced Tuesday. The similar but more narrow proposed change, House Bill 411, only applies to private college police forces if they have an agreement with a local municipality giving them off-campus jurisdiction.

Though Marietta College Police do not currently have outside jurisdiction, the college is working with the city on a mutual aid agreement, Weaver said.

The agreement would not give the college full jurisdiction in the city but would allow them to assist Marietta police on calls and vice versa, said Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram.

While nearly every criminal incident at Marietta Memorial Hospital is referred to Marietta City Police, the bills could create some privacy issues in those instances where the health system’s privately employed security does interact with patients, said Memorial Health System president and CEO Scott Cantley.

“They do help respond to patient circumstances. For example, maybe a confused or combative person comes into the ER,” he said.

Because such incident reports would contain the patient’s name, making them public results in violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).

If the law called for exceptions for reports involving patient information, it would not pose a problem for the hospital, said Cantley.

The majority of reports taken by the health system’s internal security deal with minor issues such as vandalism or parking lot scrapes and dings, he said.

Opening records would also cause a privacy gray area for the college, said Weaver. The college follows a privacy act similar to HIPPA. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act keeps all but directory information for the college’s adult students private, he said.

In general, crimes committed on Marietta College’s campus are forward to the city law director or Washington County prosecutor for prosecution, and so the charge ultimately becomes public, said Weaver.

However certain campus crimes, such as underage consumption, are generally dealt with through the campus’ judicial process, he said.

“Let’s say a student is involved in an incident. He’s 19. Mom calls and wants to know what happened. We can’t tell her,” said Weaver.

But if the incident fell under public records law, the parent would theoretically have access to it, said Weaver.

“That’s going to throw a wrench into FERPA,” he said.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he would be supportive of the bills. More transparency would ultimately equate to a safer public, he said.

“If someone committed a crime…it might be beneficial for the public to have this knowledge,” he said.

Thompson said he believes the second bill came about because some initial critics said House Bill 411 was too narrow.

Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, is a co-sponsor of House Bill 429. Current law leaves a loophole in public records requests, she said.

“It seems like they should be seen as similar to other police records,” she said.

Because private police have arrest authority, they should be held accountable to public oversight, she said.