BYU calls Utah’s move to shut down its police force ‘politically motivated’

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

Brigham Young University is arguing the state government is waging a politically motivated campaign to strip the campus of its own police department.

Lawyers for the private university didn’t offer evidence of how the Department of Public Safety’s decision to seek decertification was political, but they referenced nonpublic depositions and said they’d bring evidence to trial, if the case gets that far.

“Legitimate questions must be asked about what is driving the effort by DPS to impose the most draconian and unprecedented sanction of decertification based on such thin and unreasonable grounds in denial of basic due process rights,” wrote attorney Sam Straight. “If this case goes to trial, BYU will establish that the effort to decertify BYU police is and always has been pretextual and politically motivated.”

This latest filing comes after an administrative law judge indicated he is leaning toward ruling in favor of the Department of Public Safety, which announced in February 2019 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 school’s Honor Code Office.

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

BYU attorneys argued that Catten was wrong and urged for the case to move to trial.

Attorneys for the Department of Public Safety asked the judge to side with them.

“The undisputed facts show that BYUPD repeatedly refused to be accountable to anyone or anything except BYU and engaged in a pattern of deception when confronted with its failures,” wrote attorney Lynda Viti.

Both sides will now wait to see how Catten rules.

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.

BYU Lt. Aaron Rhoades’ actions are at the heart of the 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.

The Salt Lake Tribune obtained documents in 2016 that showed, 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. 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 failed to conduct an internal affairs investigation, as police departments are required to do, after receiving a report that Rhoades had accessed around 16,000 police reports from other agencies during a two-year period. Officers are supposed to access these records only 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.

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