PROVO — Brigham Young University has filed an appeal and intends to fight the Utah Department of Public Safety's decision to decertify the school's police department.
The school contends that the grounds for its unprecedented decertification "are factually and legally baseless," according to a 29-page letter addressed to Utah Public Safety Commissioner Jess L. Anderson that was made public Friday.
"DPS has acted outside the scope of its authority and has violated BYU's rights in numerous ways," the letter, written by BYU general counsel Steven Sandberg and attorney James Jardine, states. "The statutes and regulations relied upon by the commissioner do not give DPS the authority to decertify an entire police agency for the acts or omissions of a single officer."
BYU contends it was under secrecy orders from an unnamed judge as part of a State Bureau of Investigations inquiry into a former officer's alleged misconduct when the state filed official records requests for emails and other information regarding the case that BYU did not comply with.
The Department of Public Safety believes that BYU police did not conduct its own investigation into the misconduct — in which an officer is believed to have accessed records from other Utah County law enforcement agencies and shared that information with the BYU Honor Code Office. BYU police also did not respond to court orders, or a subpoena for an internal investigation, the state alleges.
Anderson also says that the university didn't follow the state's open records laws that all other Utah law enforcement agencies are subject to.
The contention stems from a formal Government Records Access and Management Act request for documents by the Salt Lake Tribune regarding rape allegations made by a 19-year-old student in 2016 that went unanswered.
BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, argued at the time that it is a "privately funded, managed and operated police department within a private university." University attorneys contended the "stated purpose of GRAMA 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."
A judge ordered BYU to release the records and the school has appealed that decision to the Utah Supreme Court.
The Utah Legislature also recently passed a law clarifying that law enforcement agencies at private institutions, as well as public, are subject to state public records laws. BYU officials said they supported the bill.
The university contends in its appeal sent to Anderson that its police force is "necessary for the safety and welfare" of its 33,000 students, 5,000 staff and countless visitors to the campus. "During its entire existence, University police has protected students, employees, and visitors without public funding, and at considerable expense to BYU," BYU's response to the state notice of its intent to decertify says.
Sandberg and Jardine contend that BYU has not been sanctioned by the state in its nearly 40 years of existence and has fully complied with various investigations into the officer's alleged misconduct and therefore doesn't deserve to be decertified.
They believe Anderson's "threat of decertification" is a ploy to conduct "a third, even more expansive, inquiry into alleged misconduct related to access and dissemination of records."
If the department doesn't withdraw its intent to decertify, the attorneys say BYU will pursue legal action, as it believes the Utah Department of Public Safety, and Anderson, who made the call to decertify BYU's police force, is "overstepping" its authority.
BYU asks in the letter that any official decision on the agency's certification process not come from Anderson, but a more neutral third-party official.
Public safety officials said the decision to decertify BYU police was reached after three years of review. The department remains an active police force until Sept. 1 while BYU appeals the decision.
Correction: A previous version misspelled BYU general counsel Steven Sandberg's last name as Sandburg.