COLUMBUS, Ohio — Under current state law, more than 800 privately employed Ohio police officers who carry guns, use deadly force, and search, detain, and arrest people are allowed to keep their records secret, even from crime victims.
The private police officers, who work for 39 employers made up of mostly private universities and hospitals, are — like their employers — exempt from the public-records laws that public-sector police agencies must follow.
Critics, including Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, say it's time to demand the same accountability and transparency from private police officers.
"The public policy is clear, that the state is giving them the same power as (public) police departments. For all other purposes, we should be treating them the same insofar as openness and giving the public information," DeWine said.
DeWine told The Columbus Dispatch (http://bit.ly/KuBkLX) that he will ask state legislators to change Ohio law to make private police forces subject to public-records laws.
"It's hard to envision the legislature would intend private police to make an arrest and that they should be treated differently than a police officer for the city of Columbus," he said.
Records with the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy show that there are 814 state-trained and certified officers on the job with 17 hospitals and health-care systems, 16 private universities, three railroads, an arboretum and a bank. They're allowed to make a felony arrest anywhere, anytime.
Of public-records requests filed with all 16 private university police departments and three Columbus-area hospital systems by the Dispatch, just one — the Licking Memorial Hospital — provided copies of reports on arrests made by their officers in 2013.
Fourteen of them largely said they are private and have no duty to turn the records over, while one agency didn't have any arrests.
"There is no accountability," said Fred Gittes, a Columbus lawyer who has handled several cases involving police and public records. "They have the greatest power that society can invest in people — the power to use deadly force and make arrests."
The inability to access records from private police recently gained visibility as journalism students at Otterbein University struggled to report on a former theater professor criminally charged with putting his hands down the pants of a female student.
The Dispatch also was unable to obtain records from campus police, which reported filing 60 cases in courts last year.
"Because Otterbein University is not a 'public office' for purposes (of state law) the documents you seek are not 'public records' and Otterbein will not provide them," wrote John W. Herbert, a Worthington lawyer who represents Otterbein.
Otterbein spokeswoman Jennifer Pearce said campus police "focus on the safety and privacy rights of students" and are not an arm of city police.