ELON — She was walking along South O’Kelly Avenue when an older gentleman stopped his truck at a stop sign to let her cross the street. Looking up at the man with his car window rolled down, she noticed his penis exposed as he appeared to be masturbating.
Mortified by what she had just seen and concerned the man could possibly be a sexual predator, she went to Oaks Commons to report the incident to Elon University Police. The officers treated her nicely and helped her decide whether to press charges, she said. She decided not to since she couldn’t get a good look at the man in the car.
Moments later, Patrol Officer Rian Fuller wrote a report describing very little of what had happened. Saying the case was closed and that the female Elon student had refused to cooperate, he summed up what had happened in just 18 words: “On Wednesday, September 13, 2017, I responded to the Elon University Police Department in reference to suspicious activity.”
The student, whose name was included in the police report but wishes to remain anonymous, says she has felt less safe on Elon’s campus ever since. She now refuses to walk alone at night. In a series of private Facebook messages, she said she believed University Police would update her on how the case progressed.
88 incident reports from Elon University Police during fall 2017 reveal a pattern of questionable practices from a department erring on the side of protecting student privacy at the expense of transparency.
An analysis of more than 1,100 additional police reports published between mid-August and late-November were analyzed from Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Town of Elon. While each agency strongly differs in its reporting strategies, Elon University withheld more information than any other department.
Of a total of 88 reports, Elon University Police redacted 171 names, more than all other departments in their 1,107 reports, combined. Among the names Elon withheld were seven people accused of assault or harassment. Elon most frequently redacted names in cases involving drugs or alcohol.
For the student who had been indecently exposed, knowing the names of people accused of crimes would make her feel safer.
“I 100 percent would like to know the names of peopled accused of harassment or assault on campus,” she said. “I would feel much safer to know who can potentially be a danger around me.”
Elon University declined to make President Leo Lambert and Police Chief Dennis Franks available for an interview, instead offering a brief response to questions sent by email vetted through administrators.
Dan Anderson, vice president for university communications, said in a statement that the university believes its redactions are consistent with state and federal laws.
For years, Elon University Police has operated with minimal transparency, barely meeting the minimum legal requirements, and at times, not complying with state and federal disclosure laws.
In March 2010, the police department refused to provide a complete incident report about a student who was arrested and charged with underage drinking and resist, obstruct and delay of arrest. Nick Ochsner, a former Elon student journalist now based in Charlotte, later sued the university for violating public records laws.
The case between Ochsner and the university made its way to the state Supreme Court. Elon won in 2013 following a split 3-3 decision. Ochsner had successfully managed conservative Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson’s 2010 campaign, so she recused herself from the case. Jackson, who is now up for reelection, declined to say how she would have ruled in that case or how she’d rule in similar cases.
Immediately after the court’s decision, state lawmakers clarified existing laws to specify what information college police departments must disclose. Over time, though, little has changed in the university’s approach to handling records requests.
In November 2012, Elon University withheld information from student reporters about a case involving the arrest of Alexis Gray, a Penn State student who drove to Elon’s campus with a gun after a dispute with an ex-boyfriend who attended Elon. Gray’s father called Elon police after finding a suicide note from his daughter and credit card transactions for a .22-caliber rifle at a Burlington store. Police intercepted her in the Danieley Center parking lot.
“Campus Police wouldn’t hand over the incident report at first, and eventually, we got it through University Communications a week after the incident,” said Joe Bruno, a former student and news director for Elon Local News.
“I understand there are ongoing investigations, but that was a time when the police had information that they would have been able to release, but they didn’t.”
For 10 days between late August and early September 2017, the public had no way of knowing about 12 incidents that took place on Elon’s campus.
A men’s soccer player was arrested for drunk driving. A freshman had $300 worth of clothing stolen. A junior was charged with hit-and-run property damage. Two students were cited for underage drinking. One student, who was likely suffering from psychological issues, made a voluntary commitment to the health center.
Citing technical glitches with its electronic reporting system, University Police made the reports available shortly after the issue was brought to its attention. “It was an error,” Franks said at the time. “An error was made. And as soon as we found out the error was made, we corrected it.”
Made available were heavily redacted reports with skimpy narratives, blacked out names, missing campus addresses of students and vague descriptions of alleged crimes.
While Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill only provide the top sheets of its crime reports, Elon University and Town of Elon offer reports with officer narratives. The average narrative at Elon University was less than two sentences per report, nearly four times shorter than narratives from Town of Elon Police.
Town of Elon Police blacked out zero names, provided supplementary arrest reports and offered comprehensive descriptions of crimes, whereas Elon University withheld as much information as possible. Reports from the university were also marred with inconsistencies.
For example, three university officers handled underage-drinking cases quite differently:
On Sept. 19, 2017, Fuller wrote that he “came in contact with three male subjects consuming alcohol while being underage” while on foot patrol in Smith Dorm. The case was ruled inactive, and all three names were withheld without explanation.
On Oct. 6, 2017, Officer Michael Stone issued a report for an underage drinking violation. The narrative included the wrong date of the incident and described an event that was quite different. The entire narrative said, “On Saturday, October 0, 2017 at 2305 hours I was dispatched to Danieley H [redacted] in reference to a loud noise complaint.”
On Oct. 29, 2017, Patrol Officer Kevin Graves responded to an alcohol overdose in Smith Dorm and arrested an 18-year-old named Harry Speigl. The names of two other people involved were redacted. The report also didn’t comply with state disclosure laws requiring the officer to say whether Speigl resisted arrest.
“With surprising consistency, the police department redacts every piece of information they possibly can,” said Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition.
“People make mistakes. Mistakes happen. But if they’re consistently making the same mistake, then something’s broken.”
As a private institution, Elon University’s campus police department faces a difficult task of striking a balance between protecting students’ privacy interests and complying with disclosure laws. But in the process of finding a balance, Elon often dips into the territory of unlawful redaction.
When Elon failed to update its crime log for 10 days, it violated the Clery Act — a federal law requiring university police departments to maintain a publicly accessible log of crimes — according to First Amendment legal experts from the N.C. Press Association, N.C. Open Government Coalition, University of Florida, Student Press Law Center and Clery Center.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said the Clery Act Compliance Division is not currently investigating Elon. When instructing college police departments on how to comply with the Clery Act, the education department wrote in a 2016 Campus Safety and Security Reporting guide, “Update your log within two business days of the crime report. Make the log available to the public during business hours.”
The university also routinely fails to meet the intent of North Carolina’s Campus Police Act, Jones said. The law requires private universities to provide the “name, sex, age, and address of a complaining witness” as well as the “nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law.”
University Police frequently withholds student names, citing broad protections afforded to students under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
“The Campus Police Act … requires that certain specified information be made available for inspection upon request, to the extent that such disclosure is consistent with the Clery Act and FERPA,” Anderson said. “The state statute also spells out the circumstances under which a campus police agency may withhold certain information. We believe redactions made in the incident/investigation reports are consistent with these state and federal laws.”
Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, disagrees.
“FERPA has absolutely, positively no impact on police reports. Period. It could not be clearer,” LoMonte said. “It’s written right into the FERPA statute that when a record is created for law enforcement purposes, it ceases to be a FERPA record.”
“Entities should always be in favor of disclosure and transparency unless it affects some student’s privacy rights,” said Josh Stein, North Carolina’s attorney general. “The default should be towards more information to the public.”
At Elon University, though, the default is the opposite.
In the narrative section of police reports, officers describe alleged violations of the law. The university’s crime descriptions are much shorter than the town’s.
When that same female Elon student said she was indecently exposed on Sept. 13, 2017, Fuller simply wrote, “I responded to the Elon University Police Department in reference to suspicious activity.”
Assault and harassment-related reports from Town of Elon Police were significantly more thorough. When a female alleged an unknown male hit her in the face and took off running before police arrived on Sept. 17, 2017, Officer Connor Rice wrote a detailed 15-sentence report, said the suspect was unknown and included the names of the victim and all five remaining witnesses.
Elon University declined to comment on the policies and practices of other police departments.
Of the four agencies analyzed, Town of Elon Police was the only one that did not redact a single name. It also went beyond the scope of a records request for incident reports by providing supplementary arrest reports as well.
“I believe that we are better off if we’re transparent about what we do,” said Cliff Parker, police chief for the Town of Elon. “Police work is very challenging today, and one of the issues tends to be public trust. We always want to create an environment that says, ‘Look, we want you to know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.’”
College and municipal police departments report cases quite differently, and the site of a crime plays a large role in the public’s ability to understand what happened.
At Duke University, locations are listed by block number and omit specific addresses of crimes. Amanda Martin, a Raleigh-based communications lawyer and general counsel for the N.C. Press Association, said a strong case could be made that Duke is not complying with state records laws since it does not provide precise addresses. Duke University Police Chief John Dailey declined to comment.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, 160 names were labeled “Restricted” over the span of 679 police reports, hindering the public’s ability to know the names of people who allegedly committed crimes.
Town of Elon Police provides the maximum amount of information it can under the law because it believes that is one of the best ways to build public trust.
Elon University Police are the most restrictive of the four agencies and provide inconsistent reports filled with redacted names and short, vague narratives.
“The university holds all of its departments to high expectations for performance,” Anderson said. “Its Campus Safety and Police Department is no exception.”
By Bryan Anderson
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Documents generated for this article are available below, sorted alphabetically:
For this article, I analyzed 1,195 police incident reports written between mid-August and late-November of 2017 from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, Elon University and Town of Elon Police. After an informal canvassing of the reports, I entered variables into an Excel spreadsheet and examined them accordingly. Details about the incident, including the time and date, crime type, location, officer name, and number of names redacted, were throughly examined across all four police departments. While Duke and UNC only provided the top sheets of their crime reports, Elon University Police and Town of Elon Police provided complete reports with officer narratives. Narrative length, as measured by the number of words and sentences, was analyzed for Elon University Police and Town of Elon Police. After finishing data entry, I recoded crime type into one of 11 categories, including drugs/alcohol, property, assault, harassment and trespassing. SPSS, a statistical programming software, was used to generate results, draw conclusions and produce visualizations. Documents related to court cases and state and federal records laws were also examined. Supplementary interviews were conducted with crime victims, student journalists, legal experts, university officials and police chiefs.