With BYU police on the brink, a judge is leaning toward eliminating the department

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

Brigham Young University wanted to head off the government’s attempt to eliminate its police department, asking a judge to reject the case before it even went to trial.

But an administrative law judge said he likely won’t do so and may even go in the opposite direction.

Judge Richard Catten said he’s leaning toward siding with the Utah Department of Public Safety, which announced last February that it would take the unprecedented step of decertifying the entire department after BYU police failed to conduct a proper internal investigation into a lieutenant who inappropriately accessed police reports and passed information to the Honor Code Office.

The ruling, issued last Wednesday, was in response to BYU’s motion for summary judgment, where the university essentially asked the judge to throw out the case. Catten wrote that the “undisputed facts” don’t back up BYU, rather they make him inclined to rule in favor of the state.

Catten has given both parties until Nov. 25 to respond, and may change his preliminary ruling afterward. If the state wins a complete summary judgment, it means BYU police would no longer have authority to make arrests and investigate crimes. In that instance, BYU would still have a security force and Provo police would have jurisdiction over the campus. It’s likely that BYU would appeal any such ruling, which could further delay its effective date.

Administrative law judges like Catten are not part of the judiciary, rather they work for the state government, adjudicating disputes.

Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for BYU, said in a statement Friday that the university plans to challenge the preliminary ruling. In the meantime, she said, the campus police department will continue to patrol.

“BYU police respectfully disagrees with the preliminary ruling from DPS’s administrative law judge,” she said. “The issues regarding Lt. Aaron Rhoades have been thoroughly investigated and remediated. As the Utah Attorney General’s Office said over two years ago, ‘We are satisfied that the structure that allowed this to happen has been remedied.’”

Rhoades' actions are at the heart of the decertification dispute. He accessed thousands of police reports through a shared Utah County database and gave private information to the Honor Code Office and the Title IX Office when he shouldn’t have.

State investigators found that of the 21 cases Rhoades shared, 12 involved cases BYU police never investigated.

Public records show that Rhoades often focused his searches on sex crimes, sometimes perusing a half dozen or so police reports from agencies around the county in a single day.

The Salt Lake Tribune obtained documents in 2016 that showed that, in one case, Rhoades looked up a report of a rape at the request of the Honor Code Office, then relayed intimate details about the victim back to the school staffer. The man accused of assault was not a student, but the alleged victim was — and she was subsequently forbidden from enrolling in future classes unless she submitted to an Honor Code investigation.

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.

State officials say Rhoades' actions are not the reason why it wants to decertify BYU police. They argue the department leaders failed to conduct an internal affairs investigation, as police departments are required to do, after receiving a report 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 from state regulators investigating that misconduct, and didn’t comply with legal requests for public records.

“The commissioner is not seeking to decertify because of what Rhoades did,” said Michael Hansen, an attorney representing the Department of Public Safety. “He is seeking to decertify because they didn’t do, in a very important case, what any professional police department does.”

Lawyers for the university have argued that then-Chief Larry Stott did conduct an internal investigation, but felt no laws were broken and didn’t refer Rhoades to police regulators. Attorney James Jardine, representing BYU, argued last month that there were several investigations into Rhoades, calling it “one of the most investigated events in Utah.”

Rhoades ultimately retired from the police department in October 2018, and gave up his police certification.