The old saying goes that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.
To compare, the Brigham Young University Police looks like a police department, has certified law enforcement officers like a police department, and can arrest and charge people for crimes like a police department. A look at the police blotter from this month shows that police have dealt with harassment, vandalism and marijuana possession — more than the stereotypical bike thefts.
But it’s been made more and more clear over the past weeks and even years that BYU believes its University Police, a police department for a private university, to be above or distinguished from the laws and regulations every other police agency in the state adheres to. In light of that, we agree with the recent recommendation from the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training that the University Police should be decertified.
Investigations this week have shown that Lt. Aaron Rhoades with the University Police accessed private police records from other police agencies and then gave that information to the BYU Dean of Students Office, the Title IX Office and the Honor Code Office.
The Daily Herald has known about the origins of this overstep of power for years when we first reported on it in October 2016. A public information request showed that other agencies’ records were accessed by University Police more than 2,300 times in 18 months, which concerned many police agencies, especially those whose records were being accessed.
Then-Sheriff Jim Tracy told the Daily Herald he uses the shared agency database, known as Spillman, primarily to enter information, and accesses other agencies’ databases “maybe a handful of times a year.”
He went on to say that administrative officers, like a lieutenant, query Spillman probably once a year.
We are appalled that a lieutenant, not just a rookie beat cop, seemed to overstep his bounds not just once, but seemingly thousands of times to turn students over to the Honor Code and Title IX offices, which were, at the time, the same office.
This was more than just accidental, this represented a pattern of willful violation of the law.
Further, once a POST investigation was initiated, rather than comply with a department mandated subpoena, BYU failed to comply and ignored the POST subpoena.
The University Police has, for years, acted in a manner in which they believe that because they enforce the law at a private university, they are somehow a private entity.
But that is far from the case. Every single one of the police officers at BYU attended the police academy and is POST-certified, the same as every Provo police officer, county deputy or highway trooper. Its boss is POST, not BYU, and this pending decertification is a stark reminder.
We also stand with our fellow journalists at The Salt Lake Tribune and our local representatives in demanding that BYU’s police be subject to GRAMA and public record laws. The Tribune and BYU are deeply embroiled in a lawsuit over this fact and it seems clear that after the unanimous approval by a Senate committee to subject BYU to GRAMA laws, BYU is vastly in the minority in believing it’s exempt from having a transparent, open and honest police force.
Transparency is one of the hallmarks of freedom of information and public records laws. Without transparency, we have obscurity, where unethical behavior and even illegal actions catalyze, as was apparently the case.
We do not dismiss the academic integrity and achievements of BYU as a university. Many of our staff and editorial board are BYU alumni.
But an internal investigation into this lieutenant’s overreach was never even conducted. Rather, the entire pattern of unethical behavior was swept under the rug rather than dealt with properly.
These actions demonstrate that University Police administrators do not or choose not to comprehend who they are accountable to or who they serve — the public. They would rather protect and serve one of their own than protect and serve those thousands whose private information may have been freely shared with other officials that had no right to even possess that data.
We are saddened that it seems the misguided actions of a single officer may lead to many more losing their jobs. However, we are pleased with Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, who said the city is confident the Provo Police will rise to the occasion should those officers need to enforce the law at BYU should the University Police decertification carry through.
We don’t wish for an unsafe campus or an unsafe community. But we do wish for police officers and a department that follows the law. The law cannot be enforced if it is not first followed.
University Police must be decertified.