‘Good day for Utah’ — BYU police should be subject to open-records laws, judge rules, in dispute about sexual assault investigations

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune the campus police offices on the campus of BYU in Provo Wednesday June 1, 2016.

A Utah judge has ruled that the Brigham Young University Police Department is a governmental entity and should have to comply with Utah’s open-records laws.

Third District Judge Laura Scott issued the one-page ruling Friday morning.

In 2016, The Salt Lake Tribune filed a lawsuit, arguing that the BYU police force should be open to public records requests because it has “full-spectrum” law enforcement authority under state law. This means BYU officers may stop, search, arrest and use physical force against people, just as any other sworn officer in the state. But currently BYU police do not face the same requirements for transparency.

The law enforcement arm of the university, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has contended that it is exempt from the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) because it is part of a private university.

Scott wrote in her ruling: “Having carefully considered the briefing, undisputed material facts, applicable law, and arguments of counsel, the court concludes that when BYUPD is acting as a law enforcement agency and/or its officers are acting as law enforcement officers, it is a governmental entity subject to GRAMA.”

The judge added that she will issue a more-detailed ruling in the coming days.

BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead said in a Friday statement that the university was “disappointed” in the judge’s decision.

“The court said in today’s minute entry that it expects to issue a detailed ruling and order in the next few days,” he said. “BYU will wait until that order is issued to determine its next steps related to this decision and any other State Records Committee decisions.”

Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce said Friday that the judge’s ruling was the “right result” after a two-year court battle for records access.

“We’re grateful," she said, "the court recognized that this law enforcement agency, with all the power it wields, needs to be open to public scrutiny.”

BYU attorneys argued in May that the Police Department was created and funded by a private university and, therefore, should not be considered a “government entity” as defined in GRAMA.

Tribune attorney Michael O’Brien countered that because the university department derived its policing powers from legislative action more than 35 years ago, it was the state that established the department — and therefore it is a public entity.

“It’s a good day for Utah,” O’Brien said Friday, “because law enforcement agencies should be accountable to the public, and one of the best ways to do that is through open-records laws. This is a win for the people of Utah.”

Paul Huntsman, The Tribune’s owner and publisher, called the ruling “a great victory for the students of BYU and anyone associated with the university.”

“One of the core values of The Tribune is to ensure there is transparency into institutions of power around the state,” he said, “and this is just another example of the role that strong, independent journalism plays in our community."

While it’s unclear whether BYU will appeal the ruling, O’Brien said he has expected that the issue would reach the state’s highest court — as it has in other states where police forces at private universities have made similar arguments.

O’Brien said The Tribune’s court case is not over. The judge now will decide whether the underlying records that sparked the lawsuit are public under GRAMA.

The case stems from a public records request submitted by then-Tribune reporter Matthew Piper in 2016 amid allegations that BYU had disciplined students who report sex crimes if they were violating the school’s Honor Code at the time of the assault. That code bans alcohol, tobacco, coffee and premarital sex, and it regulates students’ appearance and interactions with the opposite sex.

BYU police provided some records but refused to release communication between the department and the Mormon school’s Honor Code and Title IX offices.

The university police have said they do not conduct investigations for the Honor Code Office. However, The Tribune has obtained internal BYU documents that show a BYU police lieutenant used his access to Provo police records, via a countywide law enforcement database, for an Honor Code investigation into the conduct of a student who had reported a sexual assault to Provo police.

The Utah Department of Public Safety spent a year investigating how BYU officers access and share their own reports and the records of other Utah County police agencies. While the investigation was completed last July, the Utah attorney general’s office has been reviewing the case ever since — and the findings have not yet been made public.

Scott’s ruling will affect more than just The Tribune’s pending request. The State Records Committee ruled Thursday that a recording of a 2017 interview between a BYU police officer and a former leader of the Mormon Missionary Traininer Center accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the 1980s should be made public. But the committee ordered that the release of the recording be put on hold until the courts decide whether BYU police is subject to GRAMA requests.

In that case, BYU police voluntarily released a redacted police report, which detailed Joseph L. Bishop admitting to officers that he took a young woman into a small room at the Provo campus in 1984 and asked to see her breasts.

The department refused to release the recording of Bishop’s interview, citing privacy concerns. In the denial, Chief Larry Stott also noted that BYU police are not subject to the state’s records laws but fill some requests as part of its internal practices.

Police were questioning Bishop after the woman, McKenna Denson, reported to officers in 2017 that Bishop sexually assaulted her in a small room in Provo’s MTC, the LDS Church’s flagship missionary center.

In April, Denson sued the LDS Church, saying the church placed Bishop in charge of the training center despite “red flag improprieties” years earlier. Bishop, 85, is also listed as a defendant. He has denied assaulting her. The case is still pending in federal court.