Utah needs to disband college police departments now. Robert Gehrke explains why

Misconduct and misogyny in campus police departments show us why these agencies should no longer exist

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It’s time that we do away with university police departments in Utah.

Past time, in fact.

To understand the latest reason why that is the case, consider this: Newly released records reveal that it was “standard practice” for a Brigham Young University police officer to share information from a police database, including details from sexual assault reports, with the school’s Honor Code and Title IX offices.

The practice, stretching over years, is detailed in the latest reporting by my remarkable colleagues Jessica Miller and Erin Alberty, and based on records that the school fought for five years to keep secret. If you haven’t read it, go do it now.

“My assignment as the investigations lieutenant was to provide information to the Honor Code Office,” Lt. Aaron Rhoades said in a court deposition.

That includes Katie Wilson’s case. She remembers university officials pressing her on details of her sexual assault that she reported to police — and almost nobody else.

“I wasn’t even at a point where I had talked to my friends about it,” Wilson said. “I talked to police, I talked to the county attorney and I talked to my therapist, and that was about it.”

The records show the Dean of Students Office requested information on specific students, which Rhoades provided. The police lieutenant also volunteered information on five women in 2015 who’d reported they had been assaulted and accessed information about assault victims in a database of rape investigations.

It is a deplorable and unimaginable violation of trust and, as Miller reported Friday, led to a concerted effort by state officials to decertify and dissolve the BYU police department. Unfortunately the effort failed.

But the BYU police are not alone in failing students — female students, in particular.

On Tuesday, Miller and Courtney Tanner reported on a young woman, Kaytriauna Flint, who is suing Utah State University over the school’s handling of its investigation into her alleged rape.

As part of that lawsuit, a recording surfaced of USU Police Chief Earl Morris warning football players to be careful about having consensual sex with students who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because they might regret violating the church teachings on abstinence and report it as a sexual assault.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kaytriauna Flint poses for a photograph in her attorney's office, Dec. 13, 2021. Flint was sexually assaulted in 2019 when she was a student at Utah State University.

The harm this kind of backwards mentality can have in law enforcement should be obvious. If it’s not, consider the recent study by BYU nursing professor Julie Valentine, that found that law enforcement agencies in Utah County dismissed 39% of reported sexual assaults in which an assault kit was collected to be “unfounded” or lacked evidence, a rate nearly four times as high as in Salt Lake County.

When she presented the findings to law enforcement, Valentine said she was told it was because of “cultural” differences in Utah County, where women allegedly regret having sex and claim it was non-consensual.

That same mindset is evidently festering in the brain of the now-former USU police chief (Morris resigned on Thursday — as he should have) and is bound to bleed into the department and influence how officers deal with sex crime investigations and how those players percieve them, especially those involving LDS accusers.

That mentality at the top is corrosive to the department, it’s damaging to the football program and the larger university community and it could potentially put women at an even greater risk. It has no place in any police department.

But it’s especially disappointing coming from the chief of a police department at a university that has failed repeatedly to respond to sexual assaults on campus.

Utah State University was part of the botched response to a string of sexual assaults by football player Torrey Green, who wasn’t convicted for six of them until years later. And just last year was excoriated by the U.S. Department of Justice for repeatedly mishandling multiple sexual assault cases and failing to respond to known misconduct leaving “additional students vulnerable.”

Then, of course, there’s the University of Utah police department’s tragic ineptitude that led to the murder of Lauren McCluskey: delays in responding to McCluskey’s report; a breakdown in communication with Salt Lake City police; the failure to engage in basic police work by checking her stalker’s parole status (because they didn’t know how); the disgusting exploitation of photographs of the young woman by the officer who was supposed to be investigating her complaint.

(courtesy University of Utah) Lauren McCluskey is seen on August 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City.

None of this is to say that poor policing, misguided leadership or corrupt officers are unique to university campuses.

On the contrary, the same video that USU Chief Morris made his comments shows Logan Police Chief Gary Jensen giving a wink-and-a-nod to players that the police want to “work with you.”

And multiple law enforcement agencies ignored the assault allegations against former footballer Green.

So disbanding these forces won’t solve all of the problems. But there seems to be an inherent tension in university police departments, where loyalty to the school or its athletics conflicts with the mission of enforcing the law and protecting students.

When policing breaks down, accountability is lacking and slow, if it ever comes. The bureaucracy of a university simply doesn’t have the same leverage and oversight over its police department as an elected city council and mayor have over a municipal police force.

If universities feel like they need security staff to keep an eye on buildings or write parking tickets, fine. Keep a crew of glorified mall cops on the payroll to handle those tasks.

But when it comes to doing real police work, Utah campus police departments have proven themselves — repeatedly — to be incapable of fulfilling their duty to protect and serve and given us no justifiable reason they should continue to exist.