Editor’s note: Part 1 of this three-part series was published on March 26 in Issue 5. It covered issues with information requests.
By JAMIE VERWYS
On Jan. 18, 2013, a female student at Pima Community College’s Downtown Campus was apparently robbed at gunpoint and nearly raped.
The victim told campus police she was in a women’s bathroom when a male emerged from a stall, pointed a gun at her and ordered her into the stall.
The case caught the eye of Aztec Press student reporters. With the law backing them and a commitment to their journalistic responsibilities, they sought more details of the crime.
After numerous requests, the newspaper received report C13-00189, listed as a “sexual assault-attempted rape,” on Feb. 1, 2013.
Details hidden with white-out only raised red flags. Without the redacted text, which included the victim’s account, it was impossible to know exactly what happened. To date, a full report or explanation has not been provided.
Another report that raised flags was case number C14-00419, listed as a “sex offense-other” at West Campus on Feb. 11, 2014.
Despite repeated requests, including a follow-up request through PCC Police Chief Manny Amado on April 7, 2014, the college has never provided a report to Aztec Press in any form.
When told of the delay in August 2014, Amado thanked the editor for informing him and asked Commander Michelle Nieuwenhuis to look into it.
The examples are just two of many case that have frustrated Aztec Press staffers who have requested PCC police reports and answers.
By law, all colleges that receive federal funding must keep an updated crime log
available for public inspection.
A public safety administration specialist sends the Aztec Press daily Clery logs that list every crime reported to campus police.
The logs are a component of the Clery Act, which requires universities and colleges to disclose information about crimes that occur on campuses.
The logs are made available through email, but gaining acces to the actual police reports is far trickier.
While reviewing Clery logs from January 2013 to March 2014, Aztec Press staffers found approximately 70 cases of larceny on PCC campuses, as well as other crimes including sexual assault.
Four for 20
In May 2014, Aztec Press requested about 20 of the reports from the records department. After a special request was made through Amado, the Aztec Press received four.
The four released reports were for minor crimes, with little relevant or usable information. They were released so late that any newsworthiness had long passed.
Aztec Press sent a follow-up email, asking why multiple requests for police reports went unanswered. The records department did not reply.
Amado made himself available to the Aztec Press after a reporter sent detailed information about requested police reports to Chancellor Lee Lambert.
“Let me first give my personal apologies that you were not getting the reports you were requesting in a timely manner, or not at all,” Amado said. “I’m going to accept full responsibility for that.”
He said the problem did not show a lack of transparency.
“I don’t believe that,” he said. “It is simply me not following up and making sure that the records area and her supervisor are adhering to a timely request.”
Reasons for the delay
Amado attributed recent delays to a lack of designated Clery staff, an old paper method of collecting reports, a backlog and increased analysis for accuracy.
“With Clery, we have really been scrutinizing the reports, which is taking a little bit more time,” he said. “It is causing a little bit of a backlog because of the fact that we need to closely scrutinize police reports to make sure that the Clery reports are being properly captured.”
The police department was backlogged for about five months but is finally caught up, Amado said. He is also rewriting policy to provide more quality control.
Journalistic review of the dozens of larceny, theft and burglary cases reported at Pima annually, or their outcomes, has not been possible with the current system in place.
Downtown Campus student life coordinator Michael Lopez said information such as police reports should be a basic right.
“I don’t see why there are certain things that they would want to keep from the public,” he said. “If you’re talking police reports, that’s general stuff, everyone needs that.”
Lopez believes transparency is extremely important, considering the college’s recent probation from the Higher Learning Commission.
At a recent Board of Governors meeting, Lopez said Pima’s healing process is not over.
“It hurts when we are reminded of some of the wounds we still have,” he told the board. “HLC is definitely one instance where they were not transparent. They tried to cover up a lot of stuff. When it happens now, it’s like, ‘wait a minute, we are still on notice.’”
The last police report received by Aztec Press was on Sept. 12, 2014, for a crime that happened at the end of July.
Recent requests for police records continue to go unreturned. Aztec Press made a request on Jan. 29 that still has not been answered.
Public record laws
University of Arizona School of Journalism Director David Cuillier, a leading expert on public records laws and a chair of the Society for Professional Journalists, said any and all requested police reports must be submitted by a public institution.
Very specific parameters for exemptions apply.
“There is an exemption in Arizona public records law for investigatory materials that would harm an investigation and it’s very limited,” Cuillier said.
“They can’t be overbroad in how they apply that,” he added. “They can’t blot out whole sections. We are talking about very specific pieces of information that would harm the investigation.”
Cuillier sees the withholding of police reports as a disservice to the student population.
“To hide police reports is really just not appropriate and it’s not fair to the students,” he said. “There are federal laws for the college to provide crime information. Students deserve to know what dangers they might find on campus.”
Jeffery Silvyn, PCC’s general legal counsel, said a records request could be denied if it contained confidential student information, such as medical information, social security numbers or addresses.
“There’s a federal law that protects the confidentially of certain student information,” he said. “So we would inform the requester that we were unable to audit the request because of this law.”
Adhering to the law
Attorney Dan Barr of Phoenix provides legal counsel to members of the press on behalf of the First Amendment Coalition. The nonprofit organization strives to protect and nurture freedom of expression and “people’s right to know.”
Barr said public records law violations can be grounds to sue.
“The public records law requires public bodies to produce public records requests in a timely manner, and from what you’re describing, that’s not timely,” he said in a telephone interview.
Cuillier said Pima is in violation of public records laws and the Aztec Press could take action.
“If you want to sue, you can,” he said. “That’s definitely an option for you. They are so used to just blowing off students and then the student graduates, problem over. They can stonewall till you’re gone.”
Persistence is key, Cuillier said. “If you make it clear you’re not just going to walk away, then they may have to re-assess their strategy.”
Interviews in the works
At the request of the Aztec Press, temporary public relations consultant Jodi Horton scheduled a short-notice interview with Lambert in March. She also helped redirect a request for all email correspondence between the Aztec Press and the police records department.
Lambert said he didn’t know why Aztec Press is having issues with police reports, lack of communication and unavailability.
“With some exceptions, depending on what’s going on in the details, it may be a timing issue,” he said. “But I don’t know that for a fact. I will be sure they are being responsive. If they aren’t giving them to you, they should be telling you why instead of not responding at all.”
Lambert offered assistance and requested specific details of incidences so he could address the problems.
On March 26, the Aztec Press emailed the chancellor a list of requested police reports that were never received and outlined communication problems. Lambert responded the same day and alerted Amado and Vice Chancellor for Facilities Bill Ward.
“We are both truth-seekers”
Amado has since been in close contact with an Aztec Press reporter to help resolve the issues with police reports. He has requested that all requests for police reports be forwarded to him so he can ensure they receive a response.
Journalists and law enforcement can work together and are fighting for the same cause, he said.
“Sometimes there is this perception that this is an adverse relationship, and in some cases there are, but there does not have to be,” he said.
In reality, Amado added, both groups share much in common.
“We are both truth seekers, we are fact finders, that’s what we want,” he said.
Amado offered to visit with students enrolled in the Aztec Press classes, for an open discussion about the relationship between the two.
“You deserve it, not only because you are the Aztec Press but also because you are students,” he said. “I am a firm believer that you’re not just the media, you are budding journalists who are learning, you are being educated.”
Part 3 of this series will publish on April 23 in Issue 7. It will cover changes being made in response to this report.
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Correction: Jodi Horton works at Pima 33 hours a month. Part 1 incorrectly listed her hours as 30 hours a week. The error has been corrected.