Editorial: New law puts all campus police, public or private, on same footing

If you ever wondered whether that campus police officer in your rearview mirror was “a real cop,” let’s hope you didn’t find out the hard way.

In Texas, the answer is: You bet they are, commissioned as peace officers and charged with enforcing state and local law. That applies at private universities and colleges, as well as public institutions. The law does not distinguish between the two for police powers, and soon the law will read the same for the records generated by those two types of campus cops.

Both houses of the Texas Legislature now have passed SB 308, by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, that requires police at private universities to release information such as crime reports. Texas would be one of only three states to require such disclosure.

Many such departments, commissioned by the state, have been reluctant to disclose routine police information.

The family of a Southern Methodist University student who died of an apparent overdose fought for more than a year to get a copy of the police report. At Rice University in Houston, officials refused to disclose video showing police using a baton on a suspect during an off-campus incident.

Whitmire’s bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously in the Senate, awaits only Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature to become law. Given Abbott’s general track record on open records as attorney general, that should be no more than a formality. The law would become effective Sept. 1.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, the Texas Press Association and the Texas Association of Broadcasters are among the organizations supporting the legislation.

The logic is inescapable, because within the same bounds of privacy and fairness, police are police and are doing the same police work. A burglary or theft allegation at the University of North Texas should be treated the same if it happened at Texas Christian University. Assault or sexual misconduct charges at the University of Texas at Arlington or SMU do not change size or shape based on geographic location. Reporting on those offenses should not, either.

These truths weren’t self-evident in state law before, but they are now. This is good news for Texans who deserve as much transparency as possible when the subject is law enforcement, especially on our college campuses.