The University of Utah’s new police chief has been cleared.
Following a six-month state investigation, Rodney Chatman won’t face charges after he was accused of improperly carrying a gun and badge before he was certified to do so in the state. The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office confirmed Monday with a letter that it has declined to prosecute Chatman “due to the absence of any evidence” of misconduct.
“We didn’t see any episodes where he was doing those type of things,” said D.A. Sim Gill.
Chatman, the chief chosen to oversee reforms at the U.’s police department after the murder of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, has been on administrative leave since Dec. 10.
The U. said at the time that a case was opened by Utah Attorney General’s Office after a complaint was made about Chatman that concerned “criminal offenses.” That primarily included an allegation that Chatman was impersonating an officer by wearing a uniform and carrying a weapon prior to getting his police certification in Utah. That would be illegal.
The chief retained an attorney and denied any criminal wrongdoing.
Chatman’s lawyer, Kathleen McConkie, said the chief felt the accusations were being used to scapegoat him and force him out of his position over his transparency around continued concerns about how McCluskey’s case was mishandled. That includes him speaking out after a state report confirmed intimate photos of McCluskey had been displayed by an officer at the department.
The attorney said that when the complaint against Chatman was first filed, the chief was asked by university administrators to resign or be terminated. They promised Chatman a letter of recommendation if he left willingly; they threatened to make sure he wouldn’t get another job in policing if he didn’t, McConkie added.
On Thursday, she said she was happy to hear the allegations against Chatman were found to be baseless. “It’s always been our position that he never did anything criminal,” she said.
McConkie added: “To be accused of wrongdoing has been an extremely challenging thing for him. I think that he’s still feeling as if the U. should try to make it right, in whatever capacity.”
Meanwhile, the chief has not been reinstated. U. spokesman Chris Nelson responded: “The university has received this notice. Chief Chatman remains on leave until we determine next steps.”
For his part, the chief appears to be looking for a job elsewhere. He is now a finalist for an opening to lead the public safety department at the University of Kansas, which has had its own issues responding to students reporting sexual violence.
Where the allegations came from
The investigation into Chatman was originally spurred by a complaint made by the Utah Fraternal Order of Police.
The union has pushed back against concerns over how officers bungled McCluskey’s reports. And it is legally representing several individuals fired by Chatman as he has overhauled the department in the aftermath of the case that has continued to rock the school for nearly three years.
McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was killed in October 2018 after she went to campus police several times to report she was being stalked, harassed and extorted by Melvin S. Rowland, a man she briefly dated and who had access to intimate photos she had taken of herself.
An independent review team later concluded, though, that officers did little to investigate McCluskey’s concerns before Rowland shot her to death outside her campus dorm and later died by suicide. And The Salt Lake Tribune subsequently reported that one of the officers assigned to her case showed his male co-workers — without a work-related reason — the intimate images McCluskey had shared with him as evidence.
Chatman came to the U. in February 2020 in large part to address the issues at the department and retrain the officers who remained on staff to not repeat the mistakes made with McCluskey. He replaced former Chief Dale Brophy, who retired amid the ongoing turmoil and national headlines from the case.
The complaint from the police union largely accused Chatman, though, of not having been a certified officer while leading the department and fulfilling police duties. FOP attorney Jeremy Jones, who is representing the fired officers, suggested Chatman wore a uniform and badge and carried a gun, noting that it should “constitute impersonation of a police officer.”
“My office,” he said in a statement at the time, “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.”
Not being certified, though, is not unusual for police chiefs, especially those coming from out of state.
Chiefs don’t have to be certified to perform administrative duties, Gill said. And that’s what the D.A. said that Chatman did during his time in office after arriving from his previous job in Ohio.
The chief did not cross the line, the D.A. said, according to the law. To do so, he would have had to have arrested someone or pulled someone over for speeding. Chatman did not. He kept his work strictly to administration, Gill said.
“We found that he drove a car that the university gave him once at a police parade,” Gill noted. “But that was purely in a ceremonial role. It was appropriate. He wasn’t out there acting and trying to defraud. He always acted appropriately in his role.”
Gill added there was no evidence that the chief ever wore a badge or uniform prematurely. And he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
In fact, “there were several occasions where the chief reached out to POST,” the Peace Officer Standards and Training agency that certifies officers in Utah, to ask questions about what was proper for him to do, “and refrained on those occasions” from doing anything that they advised against, Gill said.
Additionally, the district attorney noted, the complaint didn’t make sense because those filing it were fully aware Chatman was not certified yet, so they could not have been misled if he impersonated an officer, which the law requires for charges to be filed. “They knew he didn’t have his license,” Gill noted. “They weren’t confused.”
Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, declined to comment Monday until he had a chance to review the decision by Gill. Jones, the attorney, did not respond to The Tribune’s inquiry.
What Chatman believes
The U. has previously said that Chatman would have a year to get his police certification in Utah after his hiring date. McConkie, the chief’s attorney, said he did so ahead of time — by October 2020, eight months into his term. The spokesperson for POST confirmed that date.
McConkie and Chatman believe the university was trying to push him out because of his willingness to speak publicly about his concerns with McCluskey’s case.
After The Tribune reported in May 2020 that Miguel Deras, the officer assigned to McCluskey’s case, had showed off the explicit photos of her, Chatman questioned the “thoroughness” of the U.’s internal examination and requested a new investigation by the Utah Department of Public Safety.
The DPS report also confirmed that Deras showed the photos to at least three male officers, with several saying that inappropriate comments were made. Deras showed the pictures, too, to a sergeant on the night of McCluskey’s death.
Chatman condemned Deras, as well as the other officers who knew about the display but did not report it. He fired three of them. Deras, who had since left the U. and was working for Logan police, was also terminated from his position there in northern Utah.
Jones at the Fraternal Order of Police is now representing Deras and two of the fired officers, as well as former Chief Brophy. The union has filed a notice of claim, the first step in a lawsuit, against the University of Utah arguing that the employees were treated unfairly. The order also maintains that, despite the state’s independent findings, Deras did not show off the photos.
“Several of the union’s very popular officers were terminated as a result of what happened,” McConkie said. “I think they were disgruntled and angry at Chief Chatman.”
McConkie is the sister of Jim McConkie, who represented McCluskey’s parents in their case against the U., which alleged the school didn’t do what it could have to protect their daughter. That lawsuit was settled last year, on the two-year anniversary of McCluskey’s slaying.
A ‘strange’ case
Gill said he screened the complaint against Chatman as he would any other.
That includes like his decision to not file charges against Deras, either, when that case came to his office last year. In that, Gill said the officer’s actions were “definitely reckless,” but he maintained there was no Utah law for addressing that type of police misconduct.
But Gill also noted that it has been a “strange” process overall with the Chatman allegations. The complaint was originally filed to the Utah Attorney General’s Office. Prosecutors there had it for about five months and no action was taken.
Richard Piatt, spokesman for the attorney general, said the office decided last month not to finish the case after all “out of an abundance of caution” because it also represents the U. as a state university.
The case and initial findings from the office were then forwarded to Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings to review. Piatt declined to explain why it wasn’t sent to Gill, whose jurisdiction in Salt Lake County includes the University of Utah.
Rawlings did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. But Gill said Rawling’s office also questioned the placement and forwarded the case to Gill after an initial investigation there, too.
The Tribune has submitted public records requests for the findings from the A.G. and Davis County before the case was handed over to Gill, as well as Gill’s final report.
Gill said his office believed those initial reviews were not complete, so his prosecutors conducted more interviews before making the decision that it sent to the U. on June 1, with the declination letter obtained by The Tribune on Monday.
McConkie said Chatman was frustrated by the delay and how the case was handled. He was not asked any questions by the A.G.’s office, she said. “They were very unwilling to talk to us or give us any information at all,” McConkie added.
In March of this year, Chatman’s boss — Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch — announced that he would be leaving. He came to the U. shortly before Chatman, in February 2020, in a new position designed to oversee all aspects of security on campus.
Ruth Watkins, president of the university, stepped down in April to work with a national education nonprofit.
That means all of those in leadership positions responsible for responding to concerns with campus police have left or are considering leaving.