Sen. Curt S. Bramble, R-Provo, introduced a bill that would require BYU Police to release its records under the state’s open records law.
SB197 clarifies that BYU’s law enforcement agency should be considered a governmental entity, which would mean the private university’s police force would be subject to Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act, also known as GRAMA.
BYU lawyers have maintained while BYU Police, a state-sanctioned police force, voluntarily complies with the law most of the time, it shouldn’t be compelled to do so because the university is private.
The bill states if a college or university’s police department has full police powers, whether it be public or private, it should disclose police documents.
The bill’s controversy came to light when the Salt Lake Tribune filed a lawsuit against BYU seeking a release of police records in 2016.
The Salt Lake Tribune argued BYU’s police force should be subject to transparency laws like other universities because its law enforcement is “full-spectrum,” meaning it operates at full capacity.
Third District Judge Laura Scott ruled in the Salt Lake Tribune’s favor in July 2018, but BYU has appealed the decision to the Utah Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. On Tuesday, Feb. 26, Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess L. Anderson notified BYU it intends to decertify the university’s police department unless the department complies with GRAMA.
The Utah Media Coalition has issued a “bright light” designation for Bramble’s bill, which is scheduled to go before the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee Feb. 26 at 4 p.m.
“If BYU has a police department and they have delegating policing powers of the state, then they should be subjected to the same transparency and freedom of information that any other police department has,” Bramble said. “At the same time, they should have some measure for their police department, some measure of governmental amenity when exercising those police powers to the laws and regulations of the state.”
As a BYU graduate and Provo resident, Bramble said he agreed to sponsor the bill to protect citizen rights while providing transparency and accountability to institutions holding governmental rights and powers.
Bramble said police have the power to limit freedom by seizing assets, incarcerating, citing and running an investigation, which is why it is important BYU Police is more open about sharing records.
“The bill addresses specifically the activities of BYU police departments and transparency,” Bramble said.
The Salt Lake Tribune has been an active member in propelling Bramble’s bill forward.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce, editor-in-chief at the Salt Lake Tribune, said this bill is something the Salt Lake Tribune has been advocating for years.
“The Salt Lake Tribune has been fighting for this for almost three years now at this point,” Napier-Pearce said. “BYU officers can do legal duties just like any other police officer within the state, but they’re not held to the same standards of transparency as other police officers are.”
Napier-Pearce said BYU Police qualifications make it so the department should open its records under GRAMA.
“BYU police officers go through all the training to work in law enforcement including post-training,” Napier-Pearce said. “Our argument before the Utah Supreme Court is that the BYU law enforcement should be open to open record laws and transparency.”
Napier-Pearce pointed out BYU police have the same privileges as other state officers, like conducting arrests and investigations or writing out fines.
Napier-Pearce said this is something that should be taken into consideration in terms of BYU Police’s right to act as officers of the law and not just as a private security service.
“The fact is they’re not a private security service,” Napier-Pearce said. “You could argue that they are a private security service, but a private security service doesn’t exercise their law enforcement powers and exceed themselves like they do.”
Napier-Pearce said the Salt Lake Tribune’s motive behind supporting the bill is to make sure state police departments are held accountable.
“We just want to make sure that BYU Police acts like one and acts upon the open transparency laws that other law enforcement agencies do,” Napier-Pearce said. ”We applaud the bill and support everything Sen. Curt Bramble is doing.”
Napier-Pearce did not comment on whether the Salt Lake Tribune’s motives for moving the bill forward were based on previous attempts to acquire BYU Police records.
Bramble said under his bill, although BYU police records are subject to GRAMA laws, there is no guarantee they will ever be made public and used by news entities.
“The fact that a record would be subject to GRAMA does not necessarily mean that in all cases that record would be made public,” Bramble said. “Because it can be a public record, that is a protected public record, that still doesn’t see the light of day.”
Bramble said BYU’s Honor Code and Standards Office would not be subject to the same level of transparency.
“I understand why BYU would protect very vigorously the innate communication with the standards office or any of their documentation because they are a private institution,” Bramble said. “The challenge comes in when the police in an investigation obtain records from standards as part of their investigation.”
Bramble said if the situation is a BYU Honor Code policy issue the police should have nothing to do with it.
“If it’s a police action in a criminal investigation that’s where the transparency has to apply,” he said.
BYU communications commented on the bill.
“We’ve been aware that Sen. Bramble intended to bring forward this legislation and we are following it closely,” BYU Media Relations Manager Todd Hollingshead said.