LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — University of Arkansas officials were alarmed to receive a request for information about the police officers assigned to work a 2015 football game, particularly because it arrived just five days after a terrorist attack at a stadium in France.
The officials determined nothing in state law prevents public disclosure of such security plans, so they set out to change it. Their solution, which passed the state Senate on Thursday, would go much further and authorize what some critics say amounts to secret police forces at Arkansas' 33 public colleges and universities.
"It's about safety and security on the campus," said Ben Beaumont, spokesman for the University of Arkansas System.
The school rejected the Freedom of Information Act request seeking police deployments, citing a separate law, but discovered later there was no risk to the 72,000 football fans in attendance. The request came from Samantha Baker, a photographer assigned to work the Mississippi State-Arkansas game for The Associated Press, who was concerned an officer she once accused of rape would be on duty. He wasn't.
"The purpose of my request was to find out the level of risk I faced," Baker said. The AP typically doesn't name those who identify themselves as victims of sexual assault, but Baker said she was and has been speaking openly about her case.
State Sen. Gary Stubblefield agreed to take up the cause of tightening access to information at campus police departments. Two years ago, the Arkansas Senate unanimously approved his bill to seal safety plans for public schools and universities, but the Legislature adjourned before final passage. Even then, there were concerns that parents wouldn't have a chance to assess their local districts' security policies.
Separate bills he proposed this year would extend privacy to K-12 schools, colleges and universities as well as the state Capitol Police force. The western Arkansas lawmaker said society endangers police to such a degree that even the number of officers on the force should be kept secret.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, there wouldn't have been a need for a bill like this," Stubblefield said. "Our culture, we've just disintegrated."
The schools bill would prevent the release of "records or other information relating to the number of licensed security officers, certified law enforcement officers, or other security personnel employed by or contracting with a state-supported institution of higher education, as well as any personal information about those individuals." The Capitol Police bill uses similar language.
The agencies would no longer be required to report to the public how many officers are on duty, or how many are white or black, male or female. Perhaps even security video could be off limits, since any perspective shown on a tape would indicate which way a camera is pointing.
Sen. Jake Files said he hopes the language of the bill would be tightened to "hone in on what we're actually trying to protect." As the measure was discussed, he questioned whether school districts and college campuses could set up secret police agencies.
The prospect of closing off basic information about police forces alarm First Amendment advocates.
"Knowing the number of people on a police force isn't some sort of invitation for terrorist action," said John Tull, a First Amendment lawyer who has done work for the AP.
The executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, a trade group representing the interests of newspapers at the Capitol, said the bills have an unintended consequence.
"I don't think any of the colleges or university have the intention of creating secret police, but that is what the bill has the potential of doing," Tom Larimer said.
Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin is pushing for privacy involving the Capitol Police, which his office supervises. His spokeswoman said his support doesn't stem from any specific incident.
"However, if there were a scenario that involved a sensitive security situation, then certain information may be restricted," Danielle Fusco said in an email. "Secretary Martin does not and will not have a plan to create a secret police force."
In r ejecting Baker's request for information about the football game police force, university lawyers cited a state law that prohibits disclosure of water system plans because of a security concern. However, they later determined there is no such protection in current law for information about police.
Baker filed her FOI request, without citing her reason for it, in the days following the November 2015 terror attacks that killed 130 at popular locations in and around Paris, including outside the Stade de France. She said Monday she hadn't made the connection between the attacks and the school's reluctance to comply with her request.
She explained she became concerned after reading a series of AP articles on how police officers accused of sexual assault are able to remain on the force. Although the officer she accused was fired from one department, he was actively working for another and the university regularly hires officers from outside agencies for game-day duties, she said.
Baker said it was ironic that her complaints about a policeman pushed the state in a direction opposite of where she wanted it to go.
"After everything I've been through, this has prompted only action to protect police further and not one inquiry into victim safety," she said.
Follow Kelly P. Kissel on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kisselAP and go to http://bigstory.ap.org/author/kelly-p-kissel to see his work.