When do police officers have the power to carry a weapon, patrol the streets and make arrests, but yet cannot be questioned for their actions? When they’re University Police. Back in May, a 16-yr old boy was arrested for riding his bike on a sidewalk. He was then charged with breach of peace and briefly held in jail.
When his public defender sought disciplinary records for the officers making the arrest, she was told that the records were private and did not have to be disclosed.
While some elite liberal arts schools are nestled amid woods and cow pastures, Yale occupies the heart of a city racked by poverty and crime. Its police department was founded in 1894 when two New Haven cops, assigned to campus, resigned and became special constables for Yale. Today the department has 80sworn officers — roughly a fifth the size of New Haven’s. Its officers have a visible presence downtown and members of the bike patrol are frequently seen, it turns out, pedaling on city sidewalks.
As a private police force, Yale argues, it is exempt from open-records laws. In 1992, New Haven formally relinquished any oversight it may have had. Today, Yale hires, fires, promotes and disciplines its own officers and neither city nor state provides retirement benefits.
Despite that independence in hiring, Yale Police is almost identical to New Haven police in all other aspects. They drive similar cars, wear similar uniforms, have the power to make felony arrests all over the State, receive similar training, follow the same state regulations and even take the same oath.
Yet, they are private and their records are not subject to release. Similar challenges have occurred in other parts of the country, almost always resulting in no success:
The courts, so far, have taken a narrower view. In Georgia, Virginia and Massachusetts, attempts to gain access to campus crime records have failed, but legislatures in all three states have since introduced sunshine laws to bring more transparency.
By hiding behind the shield of student privacy, the schools are jeopardizing public safety, says S. Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, a national watchdog group. “Our concern lies with making sure communities are informed about crime and what’s being done to protect them,” he said.
This matter has been appealed to the FOI Commission. The mighty power of Yale is being tested.