With BYU police explicitly covered by open-records laws, Salt Lake Tribune seeks documents about Honor Code investigations

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo ) The police station at Brigham Young University in February 2019.

Utah news agencies have renewed their requests for information from Brigham Young University’s campus police, now that legislation confirms that the police department is subject to the state’s public records laws.

SB197 went into effect on Tuesday, specifying that a private university’s police department is considered a governmental entity. That means the police department at BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, must respond to public records requests as any other law enforcement agency would.

The Salt Lake Tribune and KUTV-Channel 2 separately filed requests on Tuesday.

“The Tribune has asked for these records from BYUPD before and this is the kind of transparency citizens can and should expect from all law enforcement agencies in the state,” said Tribune editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

The Tribune reiterated its request for correspondence between the police department and the Honor Code Office, first made by a reporter in 2016 amid reports that BYU was disciplining students who reported sex crimes if they were found to have violated the Honor Code when they were assaulted. The Honor Code bans alcohol and coffee, premarital sex and “homosexual behavior,” and imposes a dress code and regulates visitation between male and female students.

That 2016 request is now pending before the Utah Supreme Court. While a district judge ruled in favor of The Tribune, BYU argues its police were exempt from public records laws because BYU is a private university, and not a governmental entity. SB197 isn’t retroactive, so it doesn’t resolve that lawsuit.

But The Tribune renewed its request as the legislation went into effect on Tuesday, noting Utah’s public records laws cover any records that are “prepared, owned, received, or retained” by a governmental entity.

“I believe [records of police correspondence with Honor Code officials] are currently being retained by BYUPD, an entity subject to GRAMA,” Tribune reporter Jessica Miller wrote in the request.

BYU officials said the police department “will apply the GRAMA statute to each request as it comes in.”

“As a matter of policy, our police have routinely provided public law enforcement records upon request and will continue to do so,” wrote BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead. “University police, like other law enforcement agencies, will not provide items that are not public records under GRAMA.”

KUTV requested recordings of a police interview with Joseph L. Bishop, a former head of the church’s Provo Missionary Training Center, who was accused of sexual misconduct against a missionary in 1984. The woman in 2017 told BYU police officers that Bishop had sexually assaulted her in a small room in the MTC; according to a BYU police report, Bishop admitted to officers that he took a woman into a small room at the MTC and asked to see her breasts.

KUTV and others first requested the recording in 2018; an appeal is pending. Tuesday’s request also is based on the law’s requirement that any record “retained” by a governmental entity is subject to public records laws, said KUTV News Director Mike Garber.

BYUPD is fighting a separate battle to remain in existence. State officials have said they intend to decertify BYU’s police force for multiple violations — and in letters to the school specifically noted the department’s failure to follow public records laws.

The department also didn’t conduct an internal investigation into misuse of protected police records and failed to respond to subpoenas when state regulators were investigating a BYU officer for misconduct, state officials have said.

After a two-year investigation, state authorities said they believed a BYU police lieutenant was taking information from other departments’ private records and passing it to university officials, including Honor Code enforcers.

That finding is consistent with internal BYU records The Tribune obtained in 2016, showing that an Honor Code worker in one case asked former BYU Lt. Aaron Rhoades for information on a woman who had reported a rape to Provo police. Rhoades used a shared digital storage system to review the Provo police case documents and then shared with Honor Code enforcers intimate details from the woman’s sex assault medical exam records.

The Tribune also obtained limited data in 2016 that showed police searched for and accessed at least 6,500 reports from that digital records-sharing system in 18 months — a number that officers from other departments said seemed unusually high. The number of searches by BYU police declined after the state began investigating the department.

Other information from the state’s two-year investigation into BYU police has not been made public because a Utah judge has placed a secrecy order on the findings.

Prosecutors declined to charge Rhoades, who retired from the police department in 2018 and gave up his police certification.

In addition to emails The Tribune first requested in 2016 between BYU’s police department and the Honor Code and Title IX offices, Miller also has specifically requested email correspondence between Rhoades and anyone employed at the Honor Code Office from 2011 to 2018.

BYU has appealed the decertification of its police department, which is set to take effect Sept. 1.