There are two types of police officers in Ohio: Public and private. While the state can bestow full police powers to both based on training, the law, oddly, doesn’t hold them to the same standards.
Attorney General Mike DeWine believes that needs to change. We do, too.
The Columbus Dispatch on Sunday reported that there are 39 private police agencies in the state, most of them under universities and hospitals.
Those agencies have more than 800 officers, who, like about 33,000 public peace officers, are authorized to carry handguns, use deadly force, and detain and search and arrest people.”
But unlike government police agencies, private ones are largely exempt from Ohio public records laws.
That means there is no good way to monitor their activities. It also means the public cannot check officers’ background or conduct searches of their use of force and discipline histories.
In December, The Dispatch filed public-records requests with all 16 private university police departments in Ohio and the three Columbus-area hospital systems, seeking arrest reports made in 2013. Only one, Licking Memorial Hospital, provided records. The remainder said, since they are private, they had no legal requirement to do so.
That means anyone seeking information on arrests would have to wade through court records once charges are filed, or, in the case of universities, rely on the Clery Act, a federally-required report of crimes that occur on or near campus, or online crime logs, which lack details and are incomplete.
But lacking access to police records, such as incident reports, would make it impossible to verify Clery Act numbers.
The Dispatch investigation stemmed from problems that resulted at Otterbein College, which went to a private police department in 2011. Since then, student journalists have faced roadblocks while trying to report on police activities.
The situation at Otterbein, though, could occur anywhere private police are employed.
Fortunately, DeWine seems concerned about the double standard.
He told The Dispatch he will seek changes in the law to make private police forces subject to the same public-records laws that public police are bound by.
Considering DeWine is the state’s top law enforcement officer, his opinion should carry much weight. We hope lawmakers take notice, and act to eliminate a loophole that wrongly allows private police to fly under the public radar.
- The Docket
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