The new police chief at the University of Utah is being forced out as a scapegoat, his attorney said, over persistent concerns about how slain student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s case was mishandled — and for his transparency in discussing them.
Rodney Chatman, the chief chosen to oversee the department in a campus safety overhaul after McCluskey’s murder, was placed on administrative leave Dec. 10. The U.’s spokesman, Chris Nelson, confirmed that development Friday but declined to comment further on the personnel matter.
Later in the day, U. Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch issued a statement saying the Utah Attorney General’s Office is investigating Chatman in connection with allegations of “criminal offenses.” He did not provide details about what those included.
Lynch said he placed Chatman on leave after learning he “may have violated certain guidelines that are also criminal offenses, which could also adversely impact his Utah POST certification,” referring to the license officers need to police in the state. “This is a serious matter and I have expressed the university’s intent to cooperate fully in the AG’s investigation.”
Chatman has retained an attorney, though, who said he denies any criminal wrongdoing and said the chief is being pushed from his position. Chatman was asked earlier this month to either resign or be terminated, attorney Kay McConkie said, and then was given 21 days to decide. He was put on leave during that time.
McConkie said the chief was asked to meet with administrators late last week and “had no idea what was going on.” Then, she said, they told him: “We don’t want to fire you. We want you to resign. It’s in your best interest.”
They promised him a letter of recommendation if he left willingly, she added. They threatened to make sure he wouldn’t get another job in policing if he didn’t, she said.
“They’re throwing someone under the bus who never did anything wrong,” McConkie said.
She said the U. administrators told Chatman that the school was receiving pushback — and a potential legal complaint, from a source they did not disclose — over the release earlier this summer of a state report that found an officer assigned to McCluskey’s case had shown off explicit photos of the student-athlete to his co-workers.
Chatman requested the report and the underlying investigation by the Utah Department of Public Safety in response to reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune in May about how the pictures were shared by Officer Miguel Deras.
The DPS investigation confirmed that sharing, detailing that Deras showed the images to at least three of his male colleagues without a work-related reason. That display occurred two years ago, in the days before McCluskey, 21, was killed on campus in October 2018 by a man she had previously dated.
She warned officers about Melvin Rowland, but they did little to look into her concerns of extortion related to the photos, which she shared with Deras, an independent investigation later found. Rowland then shot McCluskey to death outside of her dorm before later turning the gun on himself.
McConkie said administrators at the U. were worried that the school could face a misdemeanor charge for releasing the report on the photos, from which officers’ names were largely redacted (though a few names were missed). She suggests that’s the “criminal offenses” referred to in the university’s statement.
Chatman, she believes, is caught in a political crossfire because he’d called for the investigation and promised to be transparent about sharing the results with the public.
The released report
The report was made available to the public in August; a link at the bottom of an online statement by Chatman provided a PDF file.
His statement said he was “deeply disturbed” by the DPS finding that “a small number of officers inappropriately commented on the photos before, during or immediately after a shift change briefing.” It also said he was “disappointed in the officers who were present and who did not report this incident through appropriate university channels,” and three such officers were fired.
But, ultimately, it wasn’t Chatman who released the DPS report, McConkie added. The U.’s legal counsel had jurisdiction over making the document public and was responsible for the redactions, not Chatman.
Nelson, the spokesman for the U., confirmed that. “That report was distributed by the university,” he said.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office is investigating the situation, confirmed Rich Piatt, its spokesman. He declined to comment on the scope, but it will likely include examining whether public records laws were broken.
That’s the argument that Jeremy Jones, the attorney representing Deras, has made.
He claims that Deras and the other officers weren’t allowed due process when the U. released the report before the process of disciplining them was complete and any subsequent appeals were resolved. Deras had since moved to the Logan police department and was fired there after the report came out.
Jones has maintained that Deras did not share the pictures. The Salt Lake County district attorney decided not to file any charges related to the display described by DPS, saying there’s no statute for such misconduct but insisting Deras’ actions were “definitely reckless.” The office that certifies officers in Utah is still investigating his actions and could yet decide to suspend or revoke his license.
Jones declined to speak to The Tribune on Friday. But in a news release, the attorney said Chatman undertook “adverse personnel actions against line officers,” and criticized the U. for allowing its officers to be fired and “pilloried” in connection with the photos while it won’t comment on Chatman’s leave.
A certification question
Jones said that his office does not know why Chatman was placed on leave. But in his statement, he also calls out the chief for not having been a certified police officer while leading the department and specifically when he called for the investigation and fired the officers.
The attorney said Chatman wore a uniform and badge and carried a gun without becoming a certified officer in Utah, and said his actions may “constitute impersonation of a police officer.”
“My office suspects that the University has since recognized that this problem would be made public and has placed Mr. Chatman on leave in an attempt to save face,” Jones said.
Not being certified, though, is not unusual, especially for police chiefs.
Though they typically apply for a waiver, police chiefs don’t have to be certified to perform administrative duties, and that’s what McConkie said that Chatman was doing during that time; he did not have duties related to patrol. She added that the U. told Chatman he could take a year to get certified, which requires completing a test, because he was coming from out of state. Lynch confirmed that timeline in his statement.
He also said that Chatman, “despite not yet being Utah POST certified,” has “had full authority to oversee University of Utah Police as a university department head, including making personnel, strategy and budget decisions. This is a common practice for veteran law enforcement leaders coming from outside the state who need to seek certification.”
Officers are certified in each state where they work. Chatman, who came to the U. in February from Ohio, applied for certification in Utah. And he is now certified, confirmed Lt. Nick Street with the Department of Public Safety. McConkie said his license was approved in October.
McConkie said Chatman did not wear a uniform or a badge before he was certified. She said he did carry a concealed gun on campus — but that is not against the law. He had a permit and was worried at the time about the officers he fired retaliating against him, she said.
“This is just a nightmare. He believes he’s just being used as a scapegoat,” said McConkie.
She is the sister of Jim McConkie, who represented the McCluskey family in their case against the U., saying the school didn’t do what it could have to protect their daughter. That lawsuit was settled earlier this year.
The university, Kay McConkie said Friday, has offered to “help” Chatman navigate the PR of the situation. He has declined.
‘Trying to get better’
Chatman was originally chosen out of 50 applicants by the U. to lead the campus police department in January, replacing the former embattled Chief Dale Brophy, who retired amid the ongoing turmoil with McCluskey’s case.
Chatman has spent 31 years in law enforcement, McConkie said, and is concerned about what this conflict will do to his career and future in policing. He left his previous job, leading police at the University of Dayton, as well as a house he had paid off, to come to Utah, she said.
When the U. first hired Chatman, the university’s president, Ruth Watkins, gave him a glowing review, saying he was “an experienced law enforcement leader who has a deep understanding of campus policing.”
And Lynch said Friday that Chatman has helped improve the culture at the U.
“On a personal level, I acknowledge that Rodney came to the university at a very difficult and pivotal time for University of Utah Police and has helped guide it through a period of considerable change,” he said. “He has helped me build a positive, responsive culture and to reorganize the department strategically to improve transparency, accountability and effectiveness.”
Chatman said in taking the job that he was focused on using transparency to reform the department. “We need to be transparent with everything,” he said at the time. “We need to be trying to get better each and every day.”
He has the public support of the McCluskey family. Jill McCluskey, Lauren’s mother, wrote on Twitter on Friday: “Campus safety is the most important thing a university does. I think that Chief Chatman was making process in changing the police culture. I hope they get things right.”
Deputy Chief Jason Hinojosa — who stepped into that position in July after the former deputy, Rick McLenon, was put on leave and then resigned during the photo investigation — will be taking over as interim chief while Chatman is on leave.