Utah moved to decertify BYU police months ago — but no action has been taken

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The police station at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.

It’s been 10 months since Utah officials announced they will seek to eliminate Brigham Young University’s entire police department over a failure to investigate misconduct involving an officer passing nonpublic information to the Honor Code Office.

So far that hasn’t happened, as the process to decertify the campus police department has moved out of public view and has been mired in bureaucratic debates over how to proceed with this unprecedented action.

The Utah Department of Public Safety first set a Sept. 1 date when police officers at BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would lose their authority to make arrests and investigate crimes.

That decertification deadline was delayed, however, after BYU appealed. That triggered a hearing, with a date initially expected sometime in October.

But October came and went without a hearing. And now, DPS officials say there’s still no date set.

“They are still working through the logistics of the hearing,” said DPS spokeswoman Marissa Cote. “For example, case management logistics, figuring out paperwork, making sure all the boxes are checked off … It’s a lengthy process.”

This type of hearing has never been done in the Beehive State — it’s the first time in Utah history that the state has moved to decertify a police department.

In the meantime, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins says the department continues to be certified and is policing the Provo campus.

An open records request to DPS shows top leaders of the Department of Public Safety and BYU police have had little communication with one another over this past year. The last correspondence that involved BYU Chief Chris Autry and DPS Commissioner Jess Anderson was an email they were both copied on that dealt with legislation that made BYU police subject to Utah’s open records laws.

But DPS held back releasing communication it deemed to be “privileged attorney communications,” so there may be other emails or text messages between the two parties that have not been made public.

The spat centers around a two-year criminal investigation where state investigators concluded that BYUPD Lt. Aaron Rhoades 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, which enforces a set of strict administrative rules that students and staff must follow.

DPS says BYU police did not conduct an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct lodged against Rhoades in 2016.

It was during this time that The Salt Lake Tribune obtained BYU documents that showed Rhoades had accessed a countywide database of police records and passed on intimate details about a rape case to an Honor Code staffer who wanted to investigate the alleged victim, who was a student.

Then-Police Chief Larry Stott, along with Provo police, asked for a review of the department’s record-sharing practices. But DPS contends that the university did not conduct its own internal investigation — a requirement of certified police agencies.

The state department also says BYU police failed to respond to a subpoena issued as police regulators were investigating Rhoades for misconduct.

BYU fired back in its appeal, saying the DPS decision to strip its department of policing powers was an “extreme and unprecedented action” that was “factually and legally baseless.”

The university said in the appeal that it could not initially conduct an internal investigation because a secrecy order prohibited police officials from participating in or conducting its own investigation. But the order was modified, and the university then hired a lawyer to sift through thousands of pages of documents and interviewed witnesses, who concluded that Rhoades had violated university policy by sharing nonpublic information.

The secrecy order was signed by a judge three years ago as state officials began investigating the record-sharing issues. Though the Department of Public Safety finished its investigation in 2018 and prosecutors declined to file any charges, the secrecy order remains in place to this day. The Tribune is currently seeking to have the records unsealed, and a hearing is expected to be scheduled sometime in the next several months.

BYU has opposed unsealing the records while the state has previously asked to lift the secrecy order, according to a recent ruling from the judge. The judge has redacted his or her own name from the court record.

BYU also blamed the secrecy order for rebuffing subpoenas from police regulators who were about to embark on their own investigation of whether Rhoades should be able to keep his police license.

That investigation didn’t go far, however, after Rhoades retired from BYUPD last fall and gave up his police certification.

If the BYU Police Department loses its bid to keep its police force, Provo police would likely take over the responsibility for public safety at the university.

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