- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - The University of Notre Dame’s police department must follow Indiana’s public records laws despite the university’s status as a private institution, the state’s public access counselor said.

Access Counselor Luke Britt’s formal opinion came in response to complaints filed by the South Bend Tribune (https://bit.ly/1wsela2 ) and ESPN over Notre Dame’s refusal to release campus police incident reports.

The university has a professional campus police force, with sworn officers who carry guns and have the power to make arrests and enforce state laws. But Notre Dame has long maintained that the department is exempt from Indiana’s public records law.

Britt disagreed, noting that the police department’s powers “come from the state of Indiana.”

“I am not comfortable saying an organization can hide behind the cloak of secrecy when they have the power to arrest and create criminal records and exercise the state’s police powers,” Britt wrote.

Britt’s opinion was written Oct. 31 in response to EPN’s complaint. The same opinion was released Thursday to the South Bend Tribune in response to a complaint the newspaper filed in November.

His opinion marks a departure for the access counselor’s office. Three of his predecessors had issued opinions concluding that a police force that answers solely to a private university is not subject to public records law.

Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said Britt’s opinion is “not consistent with the law or the General Assembly’s intent in excluding private university campus police.”

“Three prior advisory opinions from the Office of Public Access Counselor have agreed that private university police departments in this state are not public agencies. This has been true for some 31 years, and certainly well-settled for more than a decade. The law hasn’t changed over that time to include the Notre Dame Security Police Department or any other,” Brown said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press.

Britt, who took over the role in 2013, said the Notre Dame police force “is clearly operating under the color of the law, enforcing Indiana criminal code and not mere campus policy or disciplinary procedures.”

“If a law enforcement agency has police powers, then they should be subject to the typical scrutiny given to traditional police forces. Police powers come from the state - they do not spring forth organically,” he wrote.

Notre Dame police keep a public log of criminal incidents reported on campus as required by the federal Clery Act. The log lists only the category of a suspected crime, such as “larceny” or “theft,” a date and a general location. Campus police typically don’t release details or reports, and the university has argued that its campus force has no legal obligation to log incidents the department investigates.

Britt, whose opinions are advisory and don’t carry the force of law, said he did not find that Notre Dame violated the records law because the university appeared to be acting in good faith based on private access counselor opinions.


Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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