Ohio’s attorney general doesn’t have the final word when it comes to public records, but he does have an important voice. That’s why we are glad Attorney General Mike DeWine is weighing in on an important case before the Ohio Supreme Court.
DeWine, in a friend-of-the-court brief, argues that private police departments, like public ones, shouldn’t be able to shield criminal records from public scrutiny, as guaranteed under the state’s Open Records Act.
The case involves Otterbein University’s Police Department and criminal records requests made by an Otterbein student journalist.
The requests were denied by the Westerville-based school, arguing that because it is a private school, it was not required to meet state law regarding public records. Its attorneys have asked the high court to dismiss the suit.
At issue is whether a private university’s police force is a “public office.”
Otterbein’s security department became a police department in 2011, and officers have full police powers on campus-owned or controlled property. Officers respond to accidents and crimes; conduct investigations; have arrest, search and seizure authority; and other traditional police responsibilities.
School attorneys maintain that since the police department is “not a separate legal entity” from the school, but rather “an internal department,” it’s not a public office.
But DeWine argues Ottberbein’s Police Department is “vested with the quintessential public function of plenary police power to enforce the laws and preserve the peace” and is a creation of state law, so it meets the definitions of a public office and its records are subject to the disclosure.
“The Otterbein Police Department was created by the government and could not exist independent of the government,” he wrote in the brief. He also wrote the state certifies and regulates police officers working for private institutions.
DeWine has spoken before on the private police issue after The Columbus Dispatch reported that more than 800 state-certified officers work for 39 employers in Ohio, but were not required to make records public. He called for legislative action, which led to the introduction of House Bill 429, which is pending.
One way or the other, through the Legislature or the Supreme Court, private police agencies which enjoy full police powers need to be held to the same standard as public police when it comes to the records they keep.
There really isn’t a difference between a Westerville police officer and an Otterbein police officer except, perhaps, where they patrol, the uniforms they wear, or who signs their paychecks.
The work that police do is simply too important to hide. Transparency and openness of police activities, even in “private” settings, keeps the public informed, but also guards against the abuse of authority.
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