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BYU argues to keep its police department after Utah moved to shut it down

(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 accessed thousands of private police reports created by other law enforcement agencies and passed on information of nearly two dozen cases to university officials — including those working in the Honor Code Office.

State investigators found that of the 21 cases that Lt. Aaron Rhoades shared, 12 involved cases BYU police never investigated, but Rhoades was able to access the private records through a database shared among Utah County policing agencies.

The full scope of Rhoades' record searches had never been publicly confirmed until Monday during a hearing on the Utah Department of Public Safety’s attempt to decertify the BYU police.

Rhoades' actions are at the heart of why BYU may lose its police force entirely, but they’re not the reason Utah officials want to strip the school of policing powers.

They argue BYU police did not conduct an internal affairs investigation, as police departments are required to do, after the former Utah County sheriff told the BYU police chief in 2016 that Rhoades had accessed around 16,000 police reports from other agencies during a two-year period. Officers are only supposed to access these records when they have a legitimate investigative reason to do so.

The Department of Public Safety also argued that BYU police failed to respond to subpoenas that were issued as state regulators investigated that misconduct, and didn’t comply with requests for public records under Utah’s Government Record Access and Management Act (GRAMA).

It was during this same time period that The Salt Lake Tribune obtained BYU documents that showed Rhoades accessed a countywide database to collect information for an Honor Code investigation of an alleged sexual assault victim who was a student at BYU.

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 back to the investigator.

The Honor Code at BYU — which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — is a set of administrative rules that, among other points, forbids alcohol and coffee, restricts contact between male and female students and imposes a strict dress code.

Michael Hansen, an attorney representing the Department of Public Safety, argued Monday that the police chief had a duty to investigate Rhoades' conduct but didn’t do anything beyond having a few conversations with the lieutenant. He noted that in the 18 years that Larry Stott was chief of BYU police, not a single officer was ever referred to Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) for an investigation.

“The commissioner is not seeking to decertify because of what Rhoades did,” Hansen said. “He is seeking to decertify because they didn’t do, in a very important case, what any professional police department does, which is conduct its own internal investigation. So what we have is a police department that doesn’t act like a police department. That says we’re going to be subject to GRAMA, except when it doesn’t want to be. That doesn’t respond to subpoenas. That doesn’t respond with candor and honesty to subpoenas issued by POST. … So what is one to do?”

Attorneys for BYU made a mostly technical argument Monday, asking an administrative law judge to find that the Department of Public Safety didn’t follow the rules and misapplied the law when it sought BYU police’s decertification. BYU wants the effort to decertify to be dismissed.

“This is an extremely unprecedented remedy,” argued attorney James Jardine. “They are seeking to decertify an entire department.”

Jardine argued that the police chief did conduct an internal investigation and concluded that no laws were broken. He noted there were at least three other investigations done into Rhoades' conduct, calling it “one of the most investigated events in Utah.”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office declined to file criminal charges against Rhoades, but Hansen said Monday it wasn’t because investigators didn’t believe the lieutenant didn’t break the law.

The prosecutors weighed the expense of a trial for what would have been four or five misdemeanor charges, he said, and also considered what affect it would have on the victims whose information was already shared without their permission.

“It may have required testimony of the women whose names and information had been improperly turned over to the Title IX and Honor Code Office,” Hansen said. “[The prosecutor] did not want to have them victimized again.”

Hansen said prosecutors also considered that Stott had moved Rhoades into a position where he didn’t have access to private records, and Rhoades was considering leaving the department altogether.

Rhoades ultimately retired from the police department in October 2018 and gave up his police certification. Hansen noted that Rhoades received a severance package that included a year’s salary payout.

Judge Richard Catten is expected to rule in the next few weeks whether to grant BYU’s request to stop the decertification process.

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