Notre Dame police must play by rules

South Bend Tribune

If nothing else, the opinion of Indiana’s public access counselor that the University of Notre Dame’s Security Police Department is subject to the same public records laws as other police departments across the state is a moral victory.

In a detailed written opinion, Luke Britt, an

attorney who serves as Indiana’s PAC, opposed

three earlier PAC advisory opinions that declared

the university’s police department was not a

public agency.

From our perspective, the opinion is significant because it is The South Bend Tribune that pushed for an opinion from the PAC after Notre Dame declined to release information about a serious accident that occurred at the campus’ Main Building on the night of the Notre Dame-Michigan football game this year.

On Sept. 6 a man was critically injured after falling down a stairwell at the building right after a band concert about one hour before the start of the game. Because Notre Dame officials classified the incident as an accident, the university declined to release any additional information about the fall, including the man’s identity, condition or other details. The fall was not listed on Notre Dame’s police log.

The South Bend Tribune’s position for years has been that Notre Dame’s Police Security Department should have to comply with the same public records laws that other departments across the state have to follow. We believe the reasoning is sound; and, on Thursday, Britt agreed with that stance in a letter to Executive Editor Alan Achkar.

In his ruling, Britt said Notre Dame clearly operates under the color of the law. The department enforces Indiana criminal code. Its officers carry guns and have the power to make arrests.

This summed it up nicely: “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.

When it comes to ensuring the safety of students, as well as the faculty and staff on campus, the actions taken by Notre Dame’s security and police department are no different from the actions the South Bend Police Department takes to protect South Bend’s residents.

Notre Dame’s police officers patrol the campus. They respond to calls for assistance from anyone on campus. Its investigators investigate allegations of criminal activity, file reports and forward those reports to the St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office for review. Its department cooperates with other investigative agencies that have similar police powers. It is simply beyond the pale to argue that Notre Dame’s Security Police Department is anything but public when it treats investigations as any other police department would across the state.

Will Notre Dame change its opinion, which has long been that the university is a private institution whose police department is not a public agency? It seems unlikely, unless a decision is made to further pursue the matter in court.

We think a strong case has been made that the university’s police department is a public agency and that when an incident happens on campus, the details of which would be considered public under any other police agency in the state, Notre Dame should be required to comply with the law and release certain, specific information.

When it comes to public safety, it should not be allowed to play by its own rules.

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