Gehrke: Transparency and public accountability are vital to police departments, even BYU’s

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

We trust police officers with immense power.

We trust them to protect our communities and enforce our laws, exercising, when necessary, the authority to investigate crimes, detain citizens, arrest suspects and, on rare occasions, use lethal force.

Because they exercise such broad authority, we rightly demand accountability. That comes in the form of internal checks — chain of command and so forth — but it also comes from transparency, by allowing the public to demand information relating to how they use the power they are given.

Time and again, we have seen state open records laws and public pressure used as a check on police forces.

Think of the case involving the manhandling of nurse Alex Wubbells for doing her job and refusing to do a blood draw on an unconscious victim of a police chase. Were it not for the public release of the video of her arrest and the resulting public outrage, there would have been no accountability for the Salt Lake City officers who abused their power.

My colleague Taylor Anderson has been using open records laws for months to uncover information about the treatment of inmates in county jails, focusing on cases where people have died in custody.

The ability to shine a spotlight on how law enforcement works is vital to protecting citizens’ civil rights and liberties.

Now, the Brigham Young University Police Department is essentially arguing it should be exempt from that sunlight, that open records laws don’t apply to its officers and it should be allowed to operate within a black box that would give it unfettered power.

Fortunately, earlier this month, Judge Laura Scott disagreed.

The Salt Lake Tribune had filed an open records request and eventually sued to get records relating to how the BYU Police Department shared information with the university’s Honor Code Office.

It’s a crucial question because, as we learned in 2016, BYU threw one young woman out of school after a Utah County Sheriff’s deputy shared the woman’s sexual assault report with the university.

Was the practice more widespread and did BYU police also share that kind of information? That’s what The Tribune reporters want to find out.

Another pending request seeks records of a high-profile, decades-old sexual assault allegation from a former sister missionary who secretly recorded a confrontation with her alleged assailant — the former head of the Missionary Training Center.

But BYU has stonewalled, saying that, because it’s a private university and employs its own police force that, from the school’s perspective, the officers are essentially the same as a team of mall cops and aren’t subject to state open records laws.

It’s an incredible argument that Scott surgically dismantled in her 34-page opinion.

The roughly 30 BYU police officers — a force about the same size as a decent-sized Utah city — are certified by the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Police Officer Standards and Training center. The department is classified by DPS as a “law enforcement agency,” and, as a result, the officers are able to do anything any police officer in Salt Lake City or Ogden or Provo can do.

They are allowed to arrest suspects. They can put the flashing lights on top of their car. They gain access to confidential state and federal databases. They are part of the state’s 911 emergency call network. They can carry weapons. And they are eligible to receive state and federal grants.

They can also refer cases to the Utah County Attorney for prosecution — something private security officers cannot do — and when those cases are prosecuted, it is the State of Utah listed as plaintiff.

The BYU Police Department has exercised those roles as an arm of the state for nearly four decades, ever since the Utah Legislature passed a law explicitly recognizing BYU’s security officers as a state-sanctioned police force.

Yet attorneys for BYU contend none of that — even the explicit statutory creation of the force — makes the police department a state-sanctioned entity. They plan to appeal the judge’s ruling.

It is a flimsy argument that, if brought to its logical conclusion, carries profound consequences. It would essentially make BYU’s police department the only force in the state above the law, able to act with impunity while being exempt from transparency or public accountability.

If BYU police want to be a private security force, then the department needs to give up its access to confidential law enforcement data, state and federal funding, 911 services, and the ability to enforce and investigate crimes.

If it wants to act as a police force, then it needs to be transparent and accountable and show it deserve the public’s trust.

It can’t have it both ways.