After legal battle, new documents give clearer picture of officer’s relationship with the BYU Honor Code Office
Brigham Young University’s Honor Code Office oversees the school’s strict code of conduct: including no drugs, alcohol, or sex. In 2016, a Salt Lake Tribune investigation revealed that office retaliated against sexual assault survivors. Its policies had a silencing effect — keeping people from coming forward. That reporting eventually won the paper a Pulitzer Prize. It also set off a years-long court battle over records BYU said it didn’t have to make public.
The paper and the university recently resolved the case, and newly released documents give a better picture of the relationship between the BYU police force and the honor code office. KUER’s Caroline Ballard caught up with Tribune reporter Jessica Miller, whose latest stories focus on BYU police Lt. Aaron Rhoades.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Who is Lt. Aaron Rhoades, and what do these newly released documents reveal about his role at BYU?
Jessica Miller: Lt. Aaron Rhoades was a long-time BYU police officer, and in 2016, when we started reporting on this, we found one case where it was very clear that he went into a Provo police report, found very personal and private information about a sex assault victim who was a student, and gave that information to the Honor Code Office.
What these documents show us for the first time is that this was a sort of de facto system where he had a relationship with the Dean of Students Office, the Title IX Office and the Honor Code Office, where he would look at non-public police files that he only had access to because he was a police officer, and he would give that information to these university officials to look into the student's behavior. And in some of the emails that we see the Honor Code Office and Title IX employees are asking him for that information as well.
CB: It is legal for police forces to share certain information with each other. Where did Rhoades' conduct potentially cross a line?
JM: Utah County has a police database where they can look at each other's records. There's many reasons why that would be beneficial –– if you've got somebody who's committing crimes in different cities, if you're trying to look at trends. However, their user agreement makes it very clear that it has to be used for policing purposes. And the problem with what Lieutenant Rhoades was doing was –– he was accessing this information, he's getting information and he's giving it to a religious school for enforcement of their code of conduct. That's not a legitimate law enforcement purpose.
CB: And to be clear, they weren't just looking at perpetrators, they were also looking at victims, right?
JM: Yes. That's what the documents show. He did have a focus on sex crimes, which he explained he felt it was some obligation under Title IX to be reporting those. I've talked to the Title IX expert, and they said officers aren't expected to go find sex assault cases to go report [to] the Title IX office. But there were several women who we talked to who were victims of sexual assault. They weren't the perpetrators, and their information was shared, and in some of the cases, they were punished by the Honor Code Office or barred from registering for classes because they wouldn't submit to an honor code investigation.
CB: These new documents also revealed more about Utah Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson's efforts to decertify the BYU Police Department. How did his conversations go with BYU's police chief at the time about the conduct there?
JM: There was one sit-down meeting that was just really fascinating to read about and then talk with him about. I interviewed him also for this story. He's in a sit down meeting with the BYU chief, and he finds out that the BYU police chief reports directly to the school's lawyers. And as the top law enforcement official in the state, he sees that as a huge conflict of interest –– that the bias is going to be to protect the school and not the students.
I think he says he was a little bit astonished when he saw that the chief didn't see a problem with that. He thought that that was fine to be reporting to the school's lawyer. So there was conversations like that where there was [an] incredibly clear disconnect between what Jess Anderson's expectations were for the police department at BYU and what the police department was actually doing.
CB: Rhoades is no longer on the BYU police force. The department kept its certification, and the Legislature ended up passing some guardrails and some guidelines for the department. Do those measures seem like they're effective?
JM: I asked BYU whether their police officers or their private security force is doing this type of monitoring anymore, and they said that they are not. Jess Anderson is very closely involved with the department now with the email check-ins and making sure that the department's doing what it should be doing. And now in the law, he has steps he can take if he feels like the department's out of line. So I think we're moving in the right direction.
And additionally, now BYU police is subject to open records law, so hopefully we won't have to be entangled in five years of litigation in the future. So there's definitely been some big steps. We do have some more reporting coming out about students who are there now and what their experiences are and whether they feel like they can trust the university and the Honor Code Office in handling these really sensitive cases.