The University is considering an appeal in the wake of a ruling last week by the state Freedom of Information Commission that would make the Yale Police Department subject to open-records laws, a Yale official said this weekend.
The commission’s decision — that the YPD is functionally equivalent to a public agency and therefore must make its internal files available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act — could shine light on the inner workings of the police department. Attorneys for the University had argued that the YPD is a private, non-governmental entity that does not receive significant government funding and therefore is shielded from requirements to release internal documents.
Yale officials have not given up that stance, University spokesman Tom Conroy wrote in an e-mail message this weekend.
“The University believes that the facts it presented in its brief to the commission warranted a finding that Yale is not subject to the state FOIA,” Conroy said.
The University, he added, “has not yet decided how to proceed in the wake of the decision by the Freedom of Information Commission.”
But Yale “hasn’t ruled out an appeal,” Conroy said.
If the University decides to appeal the commission’s decision, Yale’s case against the FOIC would be heard in Connecticut Superior Court. The court would then rule based on records, hearings and transcripts the FOIC has on file from its proceedings thus far, said Colleen Murphy, the executive director and general counsel of the FOIC.
“It was a very compelling, very interesting case,” Murphy said in an interview last week. “It may be challenged in court, and in that case, we’ll just have to see it through.”
The YPD’s status vis-à-vis the Freedom of Information Act was challenged by a Connecticut public defender, Janet Perrotti — a first cousin of YPD Chief James Perrotti. Her challenge followed an incident last spring when two YPD officers arrested a city youth who was riding his bicycle on a sidewalk near the Yale campus.
The 16-year-old was charged with breach of peace, but when his description of the arrest differed from what police recalled, Janet Perrotti said she suspected misconduct and sought the personnel files of the two officers involved under the Freedom of Information Act.
Yale officials denied that request, claiming that the YPD is a private, nongovernmental entity. Janet Perrotti subsequently filed a complaint with the state’s FOI Commission, the Connecticut body that oversees FOIA requests in the state, which issued the ruling last week.
Although it is subject to appeal, the decision is another step toward what would be a notable victory for journalists and other activists around the nation who have challenged campus police departments in recent years for not complying with public-records laws.
These efforts at requiring greater transparency at such police departments have been met with some resistance — as well as some victories. In 2003, a New York state court ruled that Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., must avail its arrest reports to the public for inspection.
But two years ago, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts — of which Yale Corporation fellow Margaret H. Marshall LAW ’76 is chief justice — rejected a claim by The Harvard Crimson that open-records laws should force the Harvard University Police Department to make public its incident reports.
The Crimson may have fared worse than Janet Perrotti because of differences in state law, according to the newspaper.
“Connecticut law defines a public [agency] differently than Massachusetts law, by including within its rubric non-public agencies that are the functional equivalent of a public agency,” said Robert A. Bertsche, The Crimson’s attorney, in an e-mail message, according to the newspaper.
The Connecticut commission’s decision last week was not unexpected. In December, Murphy — acting in her role as an FOI hearing officer — found that the YPD “exercises full police powers” and recommended that the full commission require it to abide by the Freedom of Information Act. Conroy, at the time, said the University would “take it one step at a time” as to whether it would appeal.
—Bharat Ayyar contributed reporting.