A lieutenant with BYU police shared private reports with university officials investigating students when he shouldn’t have. And new info shows he did it for two years.
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The police station at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.
For two years, a Brigham Young University police lieutenant looked at private police reports created by other Utah County law enforcement agencies and passed on that information to university officials — including those working in the Honor Code Office.
Aaron Rhoades’ actions sparked a criminal investigation and are at the heart of why BYU may lose its police force
entirely, after it was announced earlier this week that Utah’s Department of Public Safety is seeking a historic decertification.
For the first time, investigative documents released Thursday by Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) give a hint of the scope of Rhoades’ actions.
The report says state investigators found that Rhoades accessed private police reports from Orem police, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and Provo police. He took information from those reports and shared them with BYU’s Dean of Students Office, the Title IX office and the Honor Code Office.
He accessed these reports for nearly two years, investigators found, starting in August 2014.
His actions stopped in June 2016 — the same time that the Department of Public Safety announced it would investigate how BYU police accessed and shared its own police reports and the records of other Utah County agencies.
It was also during this time that The Salt Lake Tribune obtained BYU documents
that showed Rhoades accessed a countywide database to collect information from another police department for an Honor Code investigation of an alleged sexual assault victim in one case.
The documents show an Honor Code investigator contacted Rhoades in 2015 asking him for information in the rape case. The lieutenant looked at the records that same day, and relayed intimate details about the case back to the investigator.
The Honor Code at BYU is a set of administrative rules that forbids alcohol and coffee, restricts contact between male and female students, imposes a strict dress code, and bans expressions of romantic affection between people of the same gender.
S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC, said he’s worked on campus safety issues across the nation for nearly 30 years and has never seen a move to decertify a police department or “police misconduct of this scope.”
“It is common for institutions to use their campus police to also serve as security and enforce institutional policies,” he said, “but use of police access to effectively spy on students to enforce non-criminal codes of conduct in this manner is unconscionable. In so doing here, a private entity would be using the power of the state to effect their own religious rules, something with potentially significant ramifications.”
In an email response Thursday evening, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins did not specifically address the Department of Public Safety’s investigation or why Rhoades had been accessing other agencies’ records for the university. She said there are times when BYUPD communicates with the Dean of Students office on suicide threats or other public safety incidents, and said the police department must report on-campus sexual assault to the Title IX office.
“University Police has focused on making sure there is no communication between the Honor Code Office and University Police,” Jenkins wrote, “except in an official law enforcement capacity.”
But Jenkins added that anyone — including the Honor Code Office — can request “official law enforcement records” from university police through a formal records request.
“University Police would then evaluate the request,” she wrote, “and determine, based on the same principles applicable to other law enforcement agencies, which records should be made public.”
That is a relatively new position taken by the private university, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For the past few years, BYU has argued that it is not subject to public records laws. The Tribune has sued to force BYU police to adhere to those laws. The newspaper received a favorable ruling from a district court judge, but BYU appealed to the Utah Supreme Court. The case is still pending.
However, university officials this week spoke in support of a bill in the Utah Legislature that would require BYU police to follow GRAMA
, saying they should be held to the same transparency standards as other police. The bill’s provisions would not be retroactive, according to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.
Rhoades’ attorneys, Sam Alba and Derek Williams, said in a Thursday evening statement that the police officer believed he has always complied with state laws and standards.
“Published reports speculating about Lt. Rhoades’ conduct while at BYUPD are inaccurate,” the statement reads.
Public officials have never acknowledged whether Rhoades’ records access extended beyond the single case The Tribune found, and for years have blocked the newspaper’s records requests seeking that information.
The Tribune obtained limited data in 2016
that showed BYU police searched for and accessed about 6,500 initial reports, plus an undisclosed number of supplemental reports, from 21 other Utah County police forces in the 18½ months that ended Sept. 15 of that year. Police officers from other departments said that number seemed high, and the number of searches by BYU police declined after DPS began its investigation of the department.
Though their investigation is now closed, DPS officials still have not released any investigative records or said what they found. Officials have also not disclosed why they will not release those records, a decision The Tribune is appealing.
The December 2018 POST report that The Tribune obtained Thursday briefly detailed why police regulators were looking into whether Rhoades should be punished for his records access. But before the investigation could gain traction, Rhoades voluntarily left BYU police and gave up his police certification. He had been a police officer in Utah for 34 years.
His attorneys said in a statement that he gave up his policing license because he retired in October and the certification would have lapsed anyway.
“As with the criminal investigation, Lt. Rhoades believes that he would have been successful in showing the POST council that he did not violate any of the POST certification standards,” the statement reads.
Further details about what the Department of Public Safety found in its investigation were blacked out in the copy of the record provided to The Tribune.
Officials in the Utah Attorney General’s office announced in October
that they had decided months earlier to not file criminal charges against Rhoades. A panel of prosecutors had decided the case against him “lacks a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” the office said.
When the Department of Public Safety began its investigation nearly three years ago, officials said it was doing so at the request of the BYU police chief and the Provo Police Department.
Provo Lt. Brian Taylor on Thursday did not share what his department’s reaction was to the investigative findings, saying only: “The Provo Police Department considers itself a careful custodian of every record entrusted to it. We want people to trust us with police records, so that’s why we made the referral [to DPS].”
Utah County Sheriff’s officials similarly offered little reaction to the findings. Sgt. Spencer Cannon said their records management system is set up to allow law enforcement to look at records from other agencies — but it’s only supposed to be used if that information can help an officer in an investigation.
“It’s got to be for a legitimate purpose,” he said.
Orem police officials did not immediately return a request for comment.
BYU has said it plans to appeal the state’s decision to decertify its police force, which would take effect Sept. 1.
A letter released Tuesday by DPS revealed the ongoing dispute between it and BYU police as well as campus administrators. The letter, addressed to university President Kevin Worthen, says BYU police face decertification for two reasons.
First, the department did not conduct an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct by a specific BYU police officer during a two-year time frame ending in April 2018. The specific misconduct allegations are not detailed in the letter, but it was during that same timeframe that DPS was investigating Rhoades.
In the decertification letter, DPS officials also say that BYU police failed to respond to a subpoena that was issued as police regulators were investigating an officer for misconduct. A December letter to BYU police instructed the agency to allow DPS access to all “records, personnel and electronic data” records so investigators could assess how its officers use a police records database, the command structure at BYUPD and “the powers, authority and limitations” of BYU police officers.
BYU said it disagrees with the grounds cited by DPS for decertification. It said DPS believes campus police “failed to meet criteria” for an internal investigation and a response to a subpoena. “BYU, however, believes that University Police met all applicable criteria and is surprised that the commissioner is issuing a letter on these technical grounds,” it said.