This is the final article in a two-part series. The first story, “At Elon University, a pattern of cloudy police practices” is now available.
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina police departments hold themselves to widely different standards when reporting crimes. As some agencies offer comprehensive incident reports with detailed narratives, others disclose the least amount of information possible, occasionally dipping into unclear or unlawful territory.
The location of a crime plays a large role in the public’s ability to know what happened.
A canvassing of Triangle police departments and a comprehensive analysis of nearly 1,200 police reports from fall 2017 from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, Elon University and Town of Elon reveal inconsistencies in how colleges and municipal agencies handle records requests.
“There’s absolutely no question that it’s uneven,” said Amanda Martin, general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association.
At Duke and UNC, police only provide the top sheets of crime reports, following in the footsteps of the Durham and Chapel Hill municipal police departments. While police reports from Duke and UNC have the same physical appearance, they contain different amounts of information.
UNC redacted 160 names in 679 reports, including 23 witnesses, victims or suspects in assault or harassment cases. Duke only withheld 10 names in 347 reports, eight of which were in cases of assault. Dozens of people accused of crimes, if not hundreds, remain unknown since the top sheets were all that was made available.
“Our practice is consistent with the law and helps us to ensure the integrity of our investigative process and to protect the safety and rights of victims, witnesses and the accused,” UNC Public Safety spokesman Randy Young said.
Duke Police Chief John Dailey declined to comment.
While it appears both schools are meeting the minimum requirements of state and federal records laws, there are some open questions. UNC and Chapel Hill include specific addresses in their reports, whereas Duke and Durham provide block numbers — a gray area in compliance, according to First Amendment legal experts from the Student Press Law Center, N.C. Press Association and University of Florida Freedom of Information center.
“I could make a pretty strong argument that that’s insufficient,” Martin said, referring to block numbers being used as locations.
College police departments throughout the state tend to err on the side of less information to the public in an effort to protect students.
“How do you serve two masters?” asked Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition. “Your job is to enforce the public laws, but your job is also to carry out university policy.”
Attorney General Josh Stein said schools should always be in favor of disclosure and transparency unless it affects some student’s privacy rights. Still, he said the default should be toward more information to the public.
Colleges often cite the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act when withholding information. Elon University Police redacted 171 names in 88 reports. It proved to be the most restrictive agency analyzed, having reports riddled with inconsistencies and skimpy officer narratives.
“There’s a desire to redact everything that they legally can, and that’s bleeding into redacting things that they legally cannot,” Jones said.
The university declined to make its president, Leo Lambert, and police chief, Dennis Franks, available for comment. Instead, it offered a vetted response to questions submitted through email. Spokesman Dan Anderson said Elon “complies with all applicable laws,” despite findings brought to its attention that show otherwise.
Elon failed to update its crime log for 10 days between late August and early September. During that time, University Police arrested a men’s soccer player and charged him with drunk driving. In that 10-day stretch, Elon withheld 12 incident reports and violated the Clery Act — a federal law requiring university police departments to maintain a publicly accessible log of crimes and update it within two business days of an incident — according to representatives from the N.C. Press Association, N.C. Open Government Coalition, University of Florida, Student Press Law Center and Clery Center.
A consistent pattern across campus and municipal police departments in North Carolina was a lack of information. The Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, Raleigh and N.C. State University police departments only provide top sheets of incident reports, though they do make reports accessible online.
In smaller towns like Clayton, Garner and Smithfield, people typically go directly to the police office to obtain printed copies of reports. Fuquay-Varina charges a $3 cash fee for all copies of police reports either in person or by mail. Some agencies have become more restrictive in recent years.
In his first week as Clayton’s town manager in September 2016, Adam Lindsay directed the police department to stop making incident reports available online after hearing complaints from victims about their names being published. Lindsay said there wasn’t a high demand to keep the reports online and hasn’t heard any complaints since.
“We haven’t had this issue even come up since then, so I think that’s a sign that things are working pretty well,” Lindsay said.
Stacy Beard, Clayton’s public information officer, said the town overreacted and should have kept the incident reports online.
“They got nervous,” Beard said. “I like the way it was before. Why not in this digital age put it online?”
While incident reports are no longer available online, they can still be requested in person. Clayton continues to publish accident reports online as a service for insurance companies and people involved in car accidents.
N.C. State Maj. Ian Kendrick said the university’s police department acts more transparent than others because of its online reporting portal made available to the public.
“It varies from agency to agency on how they’d like to address [police reports],” Kendrick said. “We try to make it as easy as possible.”
Even so, there are limitations in the information N.C. State provides. Like most college and municipal police departments, N.C. State redacts officer narratives from its incident reports.
When schools do include narratives in their reports, such as Elon University, minimal details are provided. In a case involving an underage drinking violation, an officer simply said he was dispatched “in reference to a loud noise compliant.” In a separate indecent exposure case, an officer wrote that he “responded to the Elon University Police Department in reference to suspicious activity.”
The female Elon student who said she had been indecently exposed was named in the university’s police report and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In a series of private Facebook messages, she said she has felt less safe on campus, no longer walks alone at night and wishes the police would have kept her informed on whether they found the man who had indecently exposed himself. She couldn’t identify the man but claims to have provided officers with a description. The suspect’s description was not included in the report. Suspects who could be identified in other cases of assault or harassment were redacted in Elon University Police reports.
As a former prosecutor, Jones worries vague narratives could help suspects win court appeals and have their cases dismissed.
Because college students go through a revolving door and seldom have an interest in records, police departments are often left to police themselves when reports are requested.
“A student journalist might come along who’s particularly interested in records, but they’re only going to be here for a set amount of time,” Jones said. “So you can wait them out, and that happens with a great deal of consistency.”
Some police agencies take it upon themselves to provide more information than they are required. The Town of Elon Police Department, located a few hundred feet from the university, tries to be as transparent as possible.
Among many things, law enforcement records laws defined in General Statute 132 and the Campus Police Act require agencies to provide identifying information of complaining witnesses, the time, date, location, and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law and circumstances surrounding arrests.
Town of Elon Police went above and beyond a records request for incident reports by providing supplementary arrest reports and making its police chief, Cliff Parker, available for an hour-long interview. Of the 81 reports analyzed, the town redacted zero names and provided narratives about four times longer than the university’s.
“We are better off if we’re transparent about what we do,” Parker said. “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.’”
But for the overwhelming majority of police agencies lacking in transparency across Central North Carolina, meeting the minimum disclosure requirements remains the goal.
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.