At the heart of a controversy that may cost Brigham Young University its police department is a simple question: When can an officer look at a report from another agency?
Investigators are allowed to read the records from other departments only when it is for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.
But one BYU lieutenant was under the cloud of a criminal investigation for two years for his record searches after leaders from other Utah County law enforcement agencies questioned his actions.
So what did he actually search?
Surrounding this unprecedented case has been intense secrecy — from BYU, police investigators and from the courts itself.
This week, The Salt Lake Tribune received public records that, for the first time, show what Lt. Aaron Rhoades had actually been typing into the database during the two-year period in question.
Rhoades looked at thousands of records from other agencies and often focused his searches specifically on sex crimes, according to logs released Thursday by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.
The logs show Rhoades searched specifically for sex offenses 50 times, sometimes perusing a half dozen or so police reports from agencies around the county in a single day. He also made hundreds of searches for individual names and then looked at related reports.
Those names are blacked out in the 81-page report because of privacy concerns, according to a letter from a Utah County civil attorney.
Rhoades did search for other things in the database. He typed in terms like “bicycle,” “cell phone” and “safe” — and once he did several searches for a combination of the words “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” — but all of those searches combined are still less than the number of times he specifically looked for sex offenses.
State authorities believe Rhoades accessed these private reports from Orem police, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and Provo police from August 2014 through May 2016. They say Rhoades took information and shared it with BYU’s Dean of Students Office, the Title IX Office and the Honor Code Office.
If true, it could be a violation of Utah law.
Rhoades’ attorney disputes that allegation. Derek Williams said in a statement Friday that his client was looking at sex assault reports to understand the trends and occurrences in nearby areas. He taught a women’s self-defense class on campus, Williams said, and used the information from those police reports to assist in classroom instruction.
Williams asserts that Rhoades never downloaded or disseminated those reports or shared confidential information in his classes — though the logs show that Rhoades did print about 30 reports in that two-year time frame.
“Lt. Rhoades always strived to remain knowledgeable and informed about criminal activity occurring in the areas surrounding the campus and students he worked to protect," Williams said, “and this was his responsibility for much of his career.”
Rhoades retired from the BYU Police Department last fall, according to his attorney, and later gave up his police certification after the regulating agency began its own investigation into his records sharing. He had been a police officer in Utah for 34 years, according to state authorities.
BYU officials declined to comment for this story, referring questions about Rhoades’ search history to his lawyer. A BYU spokeswoman has previously said that 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.
The Tribune obtained BYU documents in 2016 that in one case showed Rhoades accessed the database to collect information from a Provo police report for an Honor Code investigation of an alleged sexual assault victim.
According to the documents, 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, nonpublic details about the case back to the investigator.
BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its Honor Code 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.
State authorities began investigating BYU police and Rhoades’ records access in 2016 amid reports from BYU students who said they were investigated by the Honor Code Office after reporting sexual assaults.
The investigation was closed after the Utah attorney general’s office decided not to prosecute Rhoades for any crimes. State officials have remained tight-lipped about their investigation and have blocked The Tribune’s records request seeking information about what they found after a Utah judge issued a secrecy order nearly three years ago at the request of prosecutors.
That secrecy order remains in place. The Tribune is awaiting a judge’s decision on whether the newspaper can intervene and ask for the records to be unsealed.
State officials have fought with BYU over how they have handled investigations into Rhoades’ actions.
In March, the state announced that it intends to decertify the entire BYU police force for violations, including failure to do an internal investigation involving misuse of protected police records and failing to respond to subpoenas issued as state regulators were investigating Rhoades. BYU has appealed the decision, calling it an “extreme and unprecedented action” that is “factually and legally baseless.”
The unprecedented decertification would have taken effect Sept. 1. But a Department of Public Safety official said Friday that the deadline will be delayed, because a hearing date for BYU’s appeal has been tentatively set for October. If the BYU Police Department is disbanded, Provo police would likely be responsible for public safety at the university.