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State to decertify BYU police department; university to appeal

(Devon Dewey, KSL.com, File)



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PROVO — Brigham Young University's police department was decertified by the state. Now, the university has decided to appeal that decision.

BYU received a letter from the Department of Public Safety dated Feb. 20 that declared the state's intent to decertify the university's police department. DPS claimed BYU police had not met "certification criteria" required by Utah state law and said the state would decertify the police department because of its failure to meet those requirements.

The "criteria" compels BYU to comply with subpoenas and allows DPS access to all records and data deemed necessary for an investigation. DPS claims BYU violated those requirements twice when:

  • BYU failed to conduct an internal investigation between April 2016 and April 2018 into specific allegations of misconduct against a BYU police officer.
  • BYU failed to comply with a subpoena during a Peace Officer Standards and Training investigation into the allegations of misconduct by a BYU police officer.

The university released a statement Tuesday in response to the state's move and announced its decision to appeal.

"BYU finds this decision confounding and disagrees with the grounds for seeking decertification. The Department of Public Safety believes that University Police failed to meet criteria for an internal investigation and a response to a subpoena. BYU, however, believes that University Police met all applicable criteria and is surprised that the commissioner is issuing a letter on these technical grounds," the university's statement reads.

BYU has maintained and financially supported its state-certified police force, also known as University Police, for nearly 40 years, according to the university's statement.

"Utah statutes have recognized the police force that BYU established and have authorized its state-certified peace officers to keep the peace," the university's statement reads.

The department will remain certified until Sept. 1 while BYU appeals the decision.

"The decision to decertify Brigham Young University (BYU) Police Department is the culmination of three years of review by the Utah Department of Public Safety. After a great deal of effort and consideration, the decision to decertify BYU Police was the sole determination of Commissioner Jess L. Anderson," DPS spokeswoman Marissa Cote said.

"It is important to our Department that all law enforcement agencies and officers in Utah are held to the highest standard. We expect transparency and accountability by all who serve the public. We will give proper respect to the decertification process while maintaining the public safety of the communities involved," she added.

A bill was recently introduced in the Utah Legislature that could force University Police to either follow the same open records rules all law enforcement agencies must obey or risk decertification.

SB197 changes the definition of a Utah "law enforcement agency" to include "a private institution of higher education whose law enforcement entity or division is certified by the Commission of Public Safety."

This bill comes in response to litigation surrounding the university and the state's public records laws. A lawsuit was filed against BYU by the Salt Lake Tribune after the news organization filed a request to obtain emails sent by BYU police regarding rape allegations made by a 19-year-old student in 2016.

The university refused to release the emails and argued that BYU police is a "privately funded, managed and operated police department within a private university." BYU attorneys maintain that the purpose of the state's public records law "is to allow access to certain government records held by governmental entities — not to allow access to private records of private institutions such as BYU, or internal departments of private institutions, such as University police."

In July 2018, however, a judge ruled that BYU must comply with the public records laws because it is a state-certified police force. BYU also filed an appeal in that case, and it has been appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.

If BYU is beholden to the public records laws of the state, the university would also have to release information about the way BYU police communicated with the school's Honor Code and Title IX offices regarding sexual assaults.

During a hearing on SB197 in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday, BYU Police Chief Chris Autry said the university police department supports the bill.

"We have no issue with being held to the same government requirements as other law enforcement agencies," he said.

Committee members recommended the bill to the full Senate in a unanimous vote.

In a statement Tuesday, Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi said city officials encourage BYU and the Department of Public Safety to work together to find a solution that benefits both entities.

"BYU and Provo City have long enjoyed a strong relationship, one that we believe is mutually beneficial in significant ways," Kaufusi said. "We will await a final decision and look forward to working with BYU to implement any changes that may be necessary or appropriate. We feel confident that BYU will work with us to ensure we find a positive solution to the situation if such adjustments are required."

Contributing: Paul Nelson, KSL Newsradio; Jacob Klopfenstein, KSL.com

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