Third District Judge Laura Scott has made clear what should have been obvious all along. Any Utah police department is going to have to behave like a police department, even if it’s the Brigham Young University Police Department.
BYU wanted it both ways. The school argued that its standing as a private institution meant that its police department was not subject to the transparency laws other Utah police departments must follow. The department has had all the powers of a police department, including the authority to stop, frisk and arrest people, but without having to comply with public requests for records about how they are operating. It is, in essence, a secret police force.
Scott’s decision came Friday in a two-year-old lawsuit filed by The Salt Lake Tribune. Reporters had been stonewalled in their requests to the police department for records related to its handling of sexual assault investigations on campus.
In particular, there has been an intermingling of police work and the school’s enforcement of its Honor Code, which requires students to avoid alcohol, coffee and premarital sex, among other things. In articles that led to this newspaper winning the Pulitzer Prize last year, Tribune reporters found that a BYU police lieutenant accessed a law enforcement database to help an Honor Code investigation into a student who said she was sexually assaulted.
The school argued that Honor Code investigations, which can result in expulsion, are a separate process that had no bearing on sexual assault cases. But after every sexual assault expert on and off campus pointed out that rapists can use the threat of expulsion to silence their victims, BYU eventually changed its policy.
But it hasn't backed down on its claim to an opaque police department. The university said Friday that it would wait for Scott's full ruling next week, but it doesn't rule out an appeal.
Instead of an appeal, BYU should decide if it wants to even have a police department. It could have its own security force that could carry weapons and stop and question people on campus when appropriate. Such a force would not be subject to Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act, but it also wouldn’t be able to arrest people or access police databases.
How often have BYU police accessed those databases for non-police work? The Utah Attorney General’s office apparently knows, but it isn’t saying. The Utah Department of Public Safety spent a year investigating exactly that. It turned its findings over to the AG’s office for review, but nothing was ever made public
BYU has a choice to make. It must choose between an open police department or none at all.
Attorney General Sean Reyes has no choice. He must release the review of BYU’s secret policing.