The new police chief at the University of Utah is seeking $10 million from the school, saying he has been targeted for his efforts to reform the troubled campus police department after student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s murder.
Rodney Chatman also says he came under fire for bringing up additional concerns that the U. was failing to properly report sexual assaults according to federal requirements. His transparency, he alleges, made him an easy scapegoat — and led the U. to put him on leave for the last six months.
At the time, the school cited anonymous accusations of misconduct involving Chatman carrying a badge and gun before he was certified to do so in the state. Those were later determined to be unfounded. But Chatman has yet to be reinstated.
Now, he’s demanding millions for the alleged mistreatment and damage to his reputation in law enforcement.
His whistleblower claims are presented in a new legal notice — the first step toward filing a lawsuit or reaching a settlement with a government agency.
The Salt Lake Tribune obtained a copy of the 10-page notice this week through a public records request. It was submitted on April 27 to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which legally represents the U. as the flagship college of the state.
Chatman’s is now the second notice of claim to be filed against the school this year concerning leadership of the police department and the fallout from the high-profile McCluskey case, which raised issues that have continued to dog the school since she was killed in October 2018.
The earlier notice, submitted in April, came from the previous police Chief Dale Brophy, who chose to retire in the aftermath, and former Officer Miguel Deras — who showed off explicit photos of McCluskey to his male co-workers — both claiming they were treated unfairly by being held responsible for mistakes made in the case. They have not yet filed a formal suit.
The notices come more than two and a half years after McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was killed outside her dorm. A later independent review found the campus police department did little to investigate her concerns of extortion by the man who, soon after her reports, shot her to death.
In his notice, Chatman said he was hired to overhaul the department after Brophy and ensure that nothing like that happened to another student. But he says that his attempts at reform were met with resistance, threats to his employment and, ultimately, the unsupported allegations that he was engaged in his own misconduct.
“The University leaders have scapegoated Chief Chatman by outrageously and falsely insinuating that he had committed bad acts in violation of public policy when he attempted to alert them to possible violations of the law,” the document states.
His attorney, Kathleen McConkie, did not immediately respond to a request from The Salt Lake Tribune for comment Wednesday.
U. spokesman Chris Nelson confirmed that Chatman is still employed by the school, though he remains on leave. “It’s ongoing,” Nelson added, declining comment further. “We’re still reviewing and determining next steps.”
‘Rebuffed’ for being transparent?
In the notice of claim, Chatman’s attorneys say that the police chief ran into opposition almost from the beginning of his employment at the U. — and every hurdle he faced was over his transparency.
Within three weeks of coming onboard in February 2020, the notice states, he raised concerns to his supervisors that the university was likely violating the requirements to report sexual assaults on campus under the federal Clery Act and Title IX. (The notice does not detail the nature of those potential violations.)
In the claim, Chatman says he warned the issues “would expose the University to costly fines and more unwanted publicity.” But, he says, he was quickly brushed aside.
It was the same treatment every time the police chief says he brought up concerns about how the department was running, how it ran in the past and how he wanted to change it.
At one point, he says he suggested to then-Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch that the school hold an open event with students, faculty and staff about the mistakes made in McCluskey’s case as there continued to be questions. Again, he was “rebuffed,” the claim states.
Chatman, though, says he faced the most pushback for his openness after it became public that an officer showed off intimate photos of McCluskey in the days before she was killed.
After The Tribune reported in May 2020 that Miguel Deras had displayed the explicit photos of her, which McCluskey sent him as evidence for her extortion case, Chatman questioned the “thoroughness” of the U.’s internal examination. In the notice of claim, he says, the school “whitewashed the actions of the police officers” and moved on.
And so he 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.
The U. released the report. And Chatman condemned Deras, as well as the other officers who knew about the display but did not report it. He fired two of them, and the deputy chief resigned. Deras, who had since left the U. and was working for Logan police, was also terminated from his position there in northern Utah.
That’s when the backlash really started, Chatman claims.
Cleared of misconduct
The officers who Chatman fired retained an attorney, Jeremy Jones with the Utah Fraternal Order of Police union, who is leading the other notice of claim against the U. with those two former policemen and Deras and Brophy.
Chatman said that Jones made up “several false claims” about him.
In August, Jones filed a complaint to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, suggesting that the chief had no authority to release the report on Deras and that Chatman also improperly carried a gun and badge without having the police certification required to do so. The attorney general’s office dismissed the first one.
But Jones said the second one, which became the focus of the state’s investigation, would amount to “impersonation of a police officer.”
The U. responded, the notice of claim states, by changing Chatman’s title from “chief of police” to “director” and reiterating to him that he could not perform police duties, like arresting someone or pulling someone over in a traffic stop, until he received his certification.
Chatman told the school that he was abiding by the rules. And they promised him that he would get his title back after he received his police certification from the Peace Officer Standards and Training agency that licenses officers in Utah. They had given him a year from his hiring date to do so.
Chatman did by October 26, 2020, eight months in, which a spokesperson for POST has confirmed. His title, though, was never returned.
And shortly after that, he said, the U. told him that he didn’t complete his certification soon enough and that he’d violated the rules.
The chief’s attorney said at the time that Chatman was then 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.
The chief continued to deny the accusations and was put on leave Dec. 10 when the U. publicly stated that Chatman was under investigation for “criminal offenses.” He has remained on leave since then, even though he was cleared of any misconduct last week.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office took up the case after a conflict in the A.G.’s Office. D.A. Sim Gill announced in a letter that Chatman wouldn’t face charges “due to the absence of any evidence” of misconduct.
“We didn’t see any episodes where he was doing those type of things,” Gill said, referring to the accusations that Chatman was carrying a gun or a badge without license.
Additionally, Gill added, not being certified 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. He didn’t cross the line or try to defraud anyone by acting like an officer.
The Tribune also reviewed more than 80 pages of notes, obtained through a public records request, from when the attorney general’s office began investigating the case and before it was turned over to Gill.
Some former officers noted in interviews that they saw Chatman with a badge or gun — sometimes openly carrying a weapon. But there were additional questions over why the U. would provide him with two university handguns, as well as a squad car, before he was certified. And so those concerns were largely dismissed.
The notice of claim suggests that the complaint against Chatman was retaliatory for firing the officers and that the U. used the claims from the Fraternal Order of Police to throw the police chief under the bus so it wouldn’t face further criticism.
Administrators, the claim states, “failed to stand behind its employee.”
Chatman is now asserting violation of his employment contract, defamation and emotional distress, among other claims over how the U. treated him.
The notice claims: “Retaliation, scapegoating, and particularly lack of transparency, were the motivating forces.”
McConkie, his attorney, has said that Chatman’s mental health has severely suffered in the months he’s been on leave. 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.
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.