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Former police chief sues the University of Utah for $2.5 million

Rodney Chatman says he was mistreated by the school, including being put on leave for nine months.

(Brown University) Pictured is Rodney Chatman, who is now suing the University of Utah for mistreatment while he was the police chief there.

After spending half of his tenure on leave over accusations that were determined to be unfounded — and never being reinstated, even when he was cleared — former University of Utah Police Chief Rodney Chatman is now suing the state’s flagship school for alleged mistreatment and discrimination.

He says the U. tried to push him out because of his transparency. He says it blocked his attempts to reform the campus police department after student-athlete Lauren McCluskey was killed. And he says there are other safety problems, including sexual assaults not being properly reported, that administrators dismissed each time he brought them up.

Ultimately, Chatman believes, his persistence led the U. to scapegoat him and attempt to ruin his reputation in law enforcement. In a lawsuit filed Monday, he’s asking for $2.5 million as recompense.

“Understanding that Mr. Chatman’s transparent attempt to address campus safety issues would expose skeletons in its closet and subject it to further scrutiny, the University of Utah intentionally obstructed and interfered with Mr. Chatman’s ability to perform his duties,” alleges the filing in 3rd District Court.

The suit was largely expected, coming four months after Chatman first filed notice that he would be making claims against the university. But it indicates that the U. was not able to reach a settlement with Chatman before the filing.

“They have been unwilling,” said Kathleen McConkie, Chatman’s attorney.

U. spokesman Chris Nelson declined to comment on the filing Monday.

The lawsuit provides even more information on the frustrating environment that Chatman says he faced at the campus police department. It also adds to the continued fallout from McCluskey’s case that the school has been unable to shake for nearly three years now, since her murder in October 2018.

In the high-profile case, McCluskey had tried several times to report her concerns about a man she briefly dated, Melvin Rowland, to officers there. Independent investigators found they didn’t take her seriously and didn’t do much to investigate. Rowland later shot her outside her campus dorm before turning the gun on himself.

(Jill McCluskey) In this undated photo, Lauren McCluskey makes the "U" with her hands.

Chatman, who was hired in February 2020 to take over after that and course-correct the department, announced he would leave the U. last month. He has accepted a new post as vice president for campus safety at Brown University, an Ivy League school in Rhode Island.

But he says the damage done by the school made finding that job nearly impossible and that his unfair treatment there continues to harm him, particularly his mental health. He says he has had to paid for counseling, as well as attorney fees.

He had originally planned on asking for $10 million in the lawsuit, but lowered that to a quarter of the amount with a focus on two claims: that the U. violated the Utah Protection of Public Employees Act and breached the contract it had with Chatman. He’s looking for $1.25 million for each.

Trying to improve the department

In his lawsuit, Chatman says that he tried for months to fix the campus police department, retrain officers and address the mistakes made in McCluskey’s case. He says that’s why he believed the U. wanted him there.

But he was ignored, pushed aside or told to stop, he said.

He suggested holding a forum with students to address lingering questions about how officers mishandled McCluskey’s concerns, he said, but was shut down. Then, he recommended releasing a briefing about the situation. That, too, was denied, he said.

Additionally, about one month into his post, Chatman says he brought concerns to his boss — newly appointed Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch — about how the U. was likely failing to comply with both Title IX and the Clery Act.

Title IX protects against discrimination based on gender, and the Clery Act requires publicly funded institutions to annually report crime statistics. That includes the number of reported sexual assaults on or near campus.

“Among other things, Mr. Chatman expressed his concern that many sexual assaults occurring on the university’s campus were likely going unreported,” the lawsuit states. This is the first time Chatman has detailed what his concerns were.

It then says that Lynch immediately brushed off Chatman’s findings. That was in March 2020.

Chatman believes after that he was considered a gadfly at the U. and administrators saw him as someone they needed to keep quiet. He says he felt that they didn’t actually want him to reform the department. And he was prevented from doing much work.

His filing suggests: “Rather than having a genuine concern for campus safety, the university merely wanted to appear concerned in an attempt to preserve its public image and avoid liability in the McCluskey litigation” that was pending at the time with McCluskey’s parents.

The U. settled that lawsuit in October 2020, acknowledging that it mishandled the case and paying out $13.5 million.

Chatman tried again after that, he said, to bring up concerns, hoping that the school could talk more openly with the case now closed.

He asked in early December 2020 to hold a forum with students about policing concerns. And he told Lynch for a second time that same month about possible violations with reporting crimes. With the latter, Chatman wrote in the lawsuit, he warned that the U. “was at risk of being audited, and ... could face potential exposure and heavy fines.”

They took no action, he says. And a few days later, on Dec. 10, a group of administrators, including Lynch, called Chatman for a meeting.

That culminated with them placing the police chief on administrative leave and releasing a statement to the public that he was being investigated for criminal misconduct. Chatman said the U. knew he didn’t do anything wrong, and they purposefully tried to damage his reputation.

Accusations of misconduct

Chatman’s lawsuit comes after he has spent the last nine months at the U. on leave. That continued for the last three months, even after he was cleared of any wrongdoing at the start of June by the Salt Lake County district attorney, who said there was no evidence of misconduct.

The U. has declined to comment on why he was never reinstated. His official last day is Tuesday.

At the time of the employment action, the school cited anonymous accusations of misconduct involving Chatman carrying a badge and gun before he got his police certification in Utah. That would be illegal.

Chatman says he disputed those claims when they first arose in August. But he said the U. used them a few months later as a way to pressure him to leave when he was uncovering problems that the school didn’t want to address.

Chatman retained an attorney who has said that the chief was asked by university administrators to resign or be terminated. They promised Chatman a letter of recommendation if he left willingly, said McConkie, his lawyer; they threatened to make sure he wouldn’t get another job in policing if he didn’t.

(McConkie is the sister of Jim McConkie, who represented McCluskey’s parents in their suit against the U.)

Chatman denied any wrongdoing and fought the allegations, which it turned out came from the Utah Fraternal Order of Police union. Chatman believes the union targeted him because he fired three officers and spoke out against a fourth, Miguel Deras, who had already left the department. The union is representing them in another pending legal complaint against the school.

The issue arose in May 2020 when The Salt Lake Tribune first reported that Miguel Deras, who was assigned to McCluskey’s case, showed off intimate photos that she had taken of herself and had sent in as part of her concerns that Rowland was extorting her.

Chatman had ordered a formal investigation from the Utah Department of Public Safety after questioning the thoroughness of the U.’s internal review.

(Logan Police Department) Pictured is former Officer Miguel Deras.

The state’s report confirmed Deras displayed the images to at least three male coworkers without a work-related reason, with several saying that inappropriate comments were made. Deras showed the pictures, too, to a sergeant on the night of McCluskey’s death.

The police chief condemned Deras and took action against the other officers who knew about the display but did not report it. Deras, who had since left the U. and was working for Logan police, was also terminated from his position there in northern Utah.

Shortly after, in August 2020, the complaint was filed by the Fraternal Order of Police, accusing Chatman of having released that report without the authority to do so — even though it was actually released by the school’s attorneys — as well impersonating an officer because he wasn’t certified.

‘An unhappy experience’

Chatman says he was already in the process of receiving his certification from the Peace Officer Standards and Training agency that licenses officers in Utah when the claims were made.

The U. has previously said that Chatman would have a year to get his police certification in Utah after his hiring date. And he completed the process in October — eight months into his term as chief and before the December meeting where he was put on leave.

Before getting his certification, he says, he never wore his uniform. The lawsuit says the tags still remain on it even now.

In the filing, Chatman does acknowledge that he carried his university-issued handgun on campus for two days in August. His attorney has previously said the same. They both say that the police chief was worried about his safety after firing the officers. And he was afraid they might try to retaliate.

The filing also notes that he had the right to carry a concealed weapon, according to Utah law.

Chatman, though, said that he was told a few days later by Lynch not to have a weapon or wear his badge. Chatman says he was wearing the badge for the first time that day when he was meeting with Lynch after he found it sitting on a desk in the department.

The chief says he was never told prior to that not to wear it. But he complied after that, the lawsuit states.

But Lynch, who has since left the U., sent a memo to Chatman in September 2020 reiterating the rules. And, he said, Chatman’s title would be changed from “chief of police” to “director.” They told him they’d restore it when he got his certification. Chatman says they never did. He was demoted, put on leave and never returned.

He says in his lawsuit that he intended to work at the U. for 12 years until his retirement. His wife had left her public accounting program to come here. And they purchased a house.

Now, they’re trying to sell it as they leave the state, about a year and a half after arriving.

McConkie said: “The whole thing has been such an unhappy experience for him.”

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