University of Utah Police Chief Placed on Leave after 10 Months in the Position

Headshot+of+Chief+of+Police+Rodney+Chatman.+%28Courtesy+University+of+Utah%29

Headshot of Chief of Police Rodney Chatman. (Courtesy University of Utah)

 

On Wednesday Dec. 16, UnsafeU, a student organization unaffiliated with the University of Utah, received an anonymous tip saying U Police Chief Rodney Chatman had been placed on administrative leave. 

“We double-checked and found that it was true and I was pretty shocked by it, since I hadn’t heard any news, I hadn’t seen an article come out from the U,” said Rebecca Hardenbrook, a third-year Ph.D. student studying applied mathematics and co-founder of UnsafeU. “When we heard the news as to why he was placed on leave, I was pretty furious.”

On Dec. 18, the U’s Chief Safety Officer, Marlon Lynch, released a statement in light of speculation claiming Chatman lacked proper certification by the Peace Officer Standards and Training board to be able to act as a law enforcement officer in the state of Utah.

“Prior to placing Rodney on leave earlier this week, I was made aware of an investigation by the Utah State Attorney General’s Office into allegations Rodney may have violated certain guidelines that are also criminal offenses, which could also adversely impact his Utah POST certification,” the statement read. “This is a serious matter and I have expressed the university’s intent to cooperate fully in the AG’s investigation.”

Chatman was hired as chief of police on Feb. 17, 2020. He was coming to the U from his position as chief of police at the University of Dayton in Ohio and was given one year to complete his peace officer standards and training certification. 

“I want to clarify that over the past year despite not yet being Utah POST certified, Rodney had full authority to oversee University of Utah Police as a university department head, including making personnel, strategy, and budget decisions. This is a common practice for veteran law enforcement leaders coming from outside the state who need to seek certification,” Lynch’s statement read. 

Lynch assigned deputy chief Jason Hinojosa to oversee day-to-day operations of the police in the meantime.

Annalisa Purser, the Director of Administration of the Office of the Chief Safety Officer, declined to comment on Chatman’s leave.

The POST Certification 

On Dec. 17, Jeremy Jones, the attorney who represents former University of Utah officer Miguel Deras in the mishandling of the Lauren McCluskey case, received media inquiries about why Chatman had been placed on leave by the U. 

In a press release issued on Dec. 18, prior to the U’s official statement, Jones said his office was unaware of the reasoning behind Chatman’s leave, but they had heard allegations of Chatman not having completed the POST certification, a designation achieved by undergoing specialized training in the state of practice. The release also stated the U’s policy requiring its officers to be Utah POST certified, which is confirmed in Lynch’s statement as well. 

“My office is involved in advancing some of the complaints that are at issue. So, we represent a number of current and former University of Utah police officers,” Jones said. “And in the course of that, we’ve uncovered some of this information.”

However, Chatman’s attorney, Kay McConkie, told the Tribune that U administrators asked Chatman to resign as they were receiving pushback from an anonymous source regarding Chatman’s intended transparency in the Deras investigation. According to McConkie, police chiefs do not need POST certification to perform administrative duties. 

Prior to the U’s official statement, Jones said the U is following the Government Records Access and Management Act by not commenting on Chatman’s leave until all disciplinary processes and appeal periods are completed. 

In this release, Jones referred to the case of Miguel Deras, a former U officer who was found guilty of sharing explicit photos of Lauren McCluskey by a Utah Department of Public Safety investigation. Deras was then fired from the Logan Police Department. 

“It is unsettling that the University would call for transparency and publicly reinforce a false narrative relative to allegations against its line officers, but remain so tight-lipped regarding allegations concerning its chief of police,” the release read.

Jones said the U was aware of Chatman’s lack of POST certification but ignored it and continued on with the hiring process. 

“The issue is that I have on viable authority that it was reported to university administration why this would present a specific problem here, given that Utah statute is very clear that in order to exercise any law enforcement authority you have to be certified by POST in this state,” Jones said. “Concerns really started to develop when Mr. Chatman started walking around campus in a uniform, with a badge, with a gun…Those concerns were heightened when Mr. Chatman started issuing press releases as the chief of police and then started taking adverse employment action against officers, very publicly, as the chief of police.”

According to the Tribune, however, Chatman did not wear a uniform or badge before he was certified. McConkie said Chatman carried a gun on campus, which is not illegal given his permit.

Typically, Jones said, officers who come from out of state can apply for a training waiver and their application will undergo a vetting process through POST. 

“To be fair, my office has heard that Mr. Chatman has since applied for POST certification,” the release read. “That does not change the fact that he undertook action as the Chief of Police for a number of months without being certified.”

According to Lynch’s statement, however, Chatman had full authority to oversee UUPD regardless of his POST certification status.

Jones cited two problems regarding Chatman: his potential impersonation of a police officer, and the administration’s violation of GRAMA laws. 

“Arguably, we have somebody who’s impersonating a police officer, because they don’t have Utah law enforcement authority, yet are representing that they are,” Jones said.

According to Jones, the second, and more important problem, is the administration’s violation of GRAMA. 

“How can we have somebody publicly run officers’ names through the mud, illegitimately I would add, in violation of GRAMA, because I maintain that GRAMA specifically protects the disciplinary records of past and former employees,” Jones said.

Jones also claimed the Department of Public Safety violated GRAMA when they released their report to the public without removing Deras’ name. 

“How can we have all of this happening when that person did not satisfy the legal predicates required to function in that capacity?” Jones said.

Jones said he believes these allegations of Chatman delegitimize the actions taken against Deras and other line officers involved in the McCluskey case and said he wants the U to care more about the people involved in these issues, rather than just their public image.

“So if the U wants to talk about institutional changes to help protect an officer and prevent this from happening in the future and if they want to do that in conjunction with larger conversations about police reform, I think that’s a great thing…But the problem here is a rot at the administration level—it doesn’t lie at the feet of these officers,” Jones said  “There’s been a massive exodus of cops from that agency for exactly this reason because there’s no confidence that the administration cares about anything except themselves and these officers don’t want to be the next people to get sacrificed on that altar.”

Campus Safety Moving Forward

UnsafeU co-founder Hardenbrook thinks this illegitimacy should probe further investigation into Deras’ case by someone certified.

“The actions that should come out of this is certainly not anything in favor of Deras. Instead, this should galvanize students to push back against their university on these safety issues,” she said. “And we should be seeing a sincere effort by the University, which we have not seen thus far, to actually fix these underlying accountability issues.”

Hardenbrook would like to see more transparency from the U. 

“They deliberately chose to hide that information until someone from the media found out and started inquiring about it,” she said. 

According to Hardenbrook, Chatman’s alleged lack of certification is making students lose trust not just in the police but also the U itself.

“At the very least Chatman’s lack of certification completely stripped all confidence in the UUPD and the Department of Public Safety from a student perspective,” she said.

After about a year of trying to meet with upper administration, Hardenbrook grew optimistic when President Watkins agreed to meet with UnsafeU. However, after the news about Chatman, she feels naive and wonders what else the U may be covering up. 

“I’m starting to wonder if there’s a single person in our safety department that we can trust to not only be on-paper qualified for the job but to actually do that job for students and really listen to students and take us seriously,” Hardenbrook said. “I’m starting to think the answer to that question is no.”

UnsafeU is currently undergoing their own investigation of the allegations against Chatman and Hardenbrook wants students to know three things. 

“The first would be: this is not normal and not all institutions have these sorts of scandals so do not accept this as a normal process of going to a large institution. Two, no one is going to be held accountable if we don’t hold them accountable,” she said. “Three, your voice carries a lot of weight, especially when it’s combined with many other voices, so use it.”

 

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