Utah officials end effort to eliminate BYU’s police department

The decision concludes a two-year effort tied to a lieutenant’s use of police data to help the Honor Code Office.

Brigham Young University’s police force is here to stay.

State officials announced Tuesday that they won’t appeal an administrative law judge’s decision to dismiss the state’s effort to strip the private university of its police powers.

That decision ended a two-year battle where the Department of Public Safety took the unprecedented action of seeking to decertify the entire department after the state said 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.

DPS Commissioner Jess Anderson wrote in a letter to BYU’s police chief that he respected Administrative Law Judge Richard Catten’s decision, saying it identified a lack of clarity in the law.

“The decision to decertify BYUPD was difficult and weighed heavily on me, but I was left with no alternative, given the evolution of choices made by BYUPD,” Anderson wrote. “I now look forward to working with the state Legislature and your department to address these important findings made by Judge Catten. It is my sincere hope that policy changes within BYUPD combined with legislative changes will make future administrative action unlikely.”

In a ruling released earlier this month, Catten granted BYU’s motion for summary judgment, siding with the university and ruling that it did satisfy the law when it asked for the state to investigate allegations of improper records sharing. Catten noted that the law wasn’t clear about how BYU police was certified and said the laws and rules governing the private university’s police force are “piecemeal and requires a substantial amount of statutory interpretation to determine how they work together.”

Catten noted that both sides took a “very different approach” to what was expected after BYU’s police chief was notified that one of his lieutenants, Aaron Rhoades, had accessed thousands of 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 eventually found that Rhoades shared information in 21 instances, 12 of which involved cases BYU police never investigated.

Catten ruled that while the Department of Public Safety expected an administrative internal affairs investigation to be turned over to regulators at the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), the university’s police force took a different approach by hiring multiple attorneys, obtaining a secrecy order in court and asking for a state investigation.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said in a Tuesday statement that BYU believes the judge “made the correct conclusion” in dismissing the agency action, and said the state’s decision to not appeal “demonstrates that its decertification efforts lacked merit.” She said the department will continue to operate as a state-certified police force.

“BYU police looks forward to working with the Department of Public Safety to follow best practices and continue to meet the certification requirements,” she said.

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. The student 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 were not the reason it wanted to decertify BYU police. They have argued the department failed to conduct an internal affairs investigation, as police departments are required to do, after learning 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.

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 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.

The scope of Rhoades’ actions are still not publicly known, because the secrecy order that state officials sought in 2016 is still in place to this day. The Tribune has spent nearly two years seeking to have the records unsealed, but a judge has not yet ruled in the case.

Correction: Jan. 26, 2020, 7 p.m.: A previous version of this story misstated who sought a secrecy order in a state investigation of BYU police’s record-sharing practices. The state of Utah sought the order, which was misstated in the administrative law judge’s order.