“All the powers,” some of the transparency

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Maddie Hamilton, Photography Editor / The Bucknellian

Haley Beardsley and Jaxon White , Print Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief

Bucknell Public Safety does not adhere to the same transparency standards as other police, despite state law granting it “all the powers” possessed by local departments.

The Bucknellian submitted multiple right-to-know requests to the Department of Public Safety over the course of five months. But, each request was formally denied by Chief Anthony Morgan through email.

State law requires local, state and some public university departments to comply with right-to-know requests for public records, but private agencies — such as Bucknell — are not required to do the same. All universities that receive federal funding must comply with rules set by the Clery Act, but these reports lack information that could be included in a right-to-know request. 

The Department has moved to increase engagement with students and faculty under Chief Morgan’s lead, but many of the changes don’t establish the same oversight practices held by some public police departments. 

Ambiguity of the “local agency”

“Bucknell is a Private Institution,” said Chief Morgan in his emailed response to a right-to-know request filed in April for all records pertaining to a 2018 assault case. “We don’t fall under any categories within the right-to-know Law and I am not able to share these records with you.”

The department’s employment method determines whether an agency is subject to a right-to-know, said Teri Himebaugh, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based Police Transparency Project.

If they are employed by the city or state, then they’re subject to the law, she said. If officers are employed by the school, then they are private and do not need to comply. All Public Safety officers are employed directly by the University.

Despite its exclusion from the right-to-know transparency, Bucknell’s Department operates with all of the same powers as a local agency. 

According to page eight of Bucknell’s 2021 Security & Fire Safety Report — created in compliance with the Clery Act — the University understands its Public Safety officers to “possess and exercise all powers of a police officer including the authority to make arrests” when “on campus and in the immediate adjacent vicinity.” 

Local agencies are defined by state law as “[a]ny local, intergovernmental, regional or municipal agency, authority, council, board, commission or similar governmental entity.” 

As a private institution, Bucknell and Public Safety are not considered local agencies, but Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the ambiguity of the “catch-all” phrase in the final sentence of the law could show Public Safety operating as a local agency.  

Any department that is authorized to “carry weapons, make arrests,” and “enact powers on behalf of the government,” they serve “as a local agency for purposes of the right-to-know law,” she said.

Harrison Rosenthal, litigation fellow at free speech advocacy group FIRE, pointed to case law in Pennsylvania and within the Federal Circuit and said, “when sworn police officers at a private institution are acting under the color of law, and they have arrest authority, then their actions are generally within the public record and subject to Information Act requests.” 

What information will Bucknell share? 

Himebaugh said private institutions can still provide requested information to improve transparency, regardless of being beholden to the right-to-know law or not, but they might not want out of staff confidentiality.

The Bucknellian submitted three right-to-know requests to Public Safety to find what information the department would be willing to provide. 

The first right-to-know was requesting the Police Report from the 2018 assault case. After Chief Morgan’s denial, The Bucknellain briefly appealed the decision through the Office of Open Records, but it was eventually withdrawn.

A separate request was submitted in late August for the Public Safety officer training plan, listed in the Policy Safety Manual

Himebaugh said publishing training directives should be among the first steps towards private police force transparency to determine if  the directives are “state of the art.”

Morgan said that the documents were not subject to right-to-know, but he included the information through an excel spreadsheet listing mandatory general staff training, but does not address the level of training completed by individual police officers — something Morgan hopes to add in the next few months.

A third request, for documents pertaining to a recent campus larceny case, was denied by Morgan because the information was “directly from students and involving other students.” 

“Federal law prohibits Bucknell from disclosing facts related to individual student conduct or personnel matters,” Morgan wrote in an email. 

FERPA, a federal law that protects students from a breach of educational records, does not generally include police reports unless the report is part of a discipline record or conduct investigation with a student. 

Bucknell does not distinguish between a police report and documents in conduct investigation, meaning no case reported by Public Safety involving a student can be provided through right-to-know.

“Universities have a tendency to, I would say, over invoke FERPA as this all encompassing shield to block any sort of information from getting out that might put the university or college in a bad light,” Rosenthal said. 

“FERPA is narrowly tailored and limited to educational records and personally identifiable information regarding those educational records,” he added. “It’s not it’s not this blanket thing that the universities can put out as a means to try to block all information requests.” 

Rosenthal said under regular right-to-know law, a local department would share all open record requests, but redact the personally identifiable information about any victims involved. 

Morgan said he would need to “confer” with the University’s communications office and the General Counsel before making a decision on the redacted documents. 

Working towards transparency

Any university that receives federal funding must release an annual security report and a daily public crime log, under the Clery Act, to maintain a certain degree of transparency

Bucknell’s 2021 Security & Fire Safety Report includes statistics on reported campus crime broken down by type, and the department’s efforts taken to prevent future crime. The log includes the type of crime committed, when it happened and a general location, sometimes referred vaguely as, “on campus.” 

Neither the full report nor daily logs include information such as incident reports, training manuals and criminal records, which could be available through right-to-know law.

Himebaugh said the lack of document sharing required could cause transparency issues, especially if a department does not make student-filed complaints available — something Public Safety does not do.

Public Safety currently has an anonymous student feedback forum, called Guardian Score, to allow students to file complaints after an incident. The program is only accessible through a QR code that is given out by each officer following an interaction. 

During his seven months as Chief of Bucknell Public Safety, Morgan has published the Policy Manual online, which is not required for private institutions in Pennsylvania. Officers have also started wearing body cameras while they are on duty. 

“Now body cameras are new and… if someone wants to come in and review the footage, and they’re involved, we certainly will do that,” Morgan said. Otherwise body cam footage can only be reviewed by members of the department.

Morgan said he created the Campus Safety & Advisory Committee, a student-led group, to gather “practices and patterns or ideas, or things, that students want to see.”

Jamie Grobes was recently hired as assistant director of Public Safety, Community Engagement and Partnerships, to act at the liaison between students and Public Safety. 

The Committee does not have any oversight capabilities to hold the department accountable or enact policy change. 

The Department, including Morgan, reports to Karin Rilley, the University’s general counsel and chief of staff. She is the only oversight, other than President Bravman, for Morgan. The chain of command for Public Safety is not published in its Policy Manual.

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