An interview between a Brigham Young University police officer and a former leader of the Mormon Missionary Training Center accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the 1980s should be made public, the Utah State Records Committee ruled Thursday.
But there’s no guarantee that the recording will be released. The BYU police department has asserted that it does not have to comply with Utah’s open records laws because it is part of a private university.
This assertion is central to a pending lawsuit that The Salt Lake Tribune filed in 2016, where the newspaper argued that the police force should be open to public records requests because it has “full-spectrum” law enforcement authority under state law. This means BYU officers may stop, search, arrest and use physical force against people, just as any other sworn officer in the state. But currently, BYU police do not face the same requirements for transparency.
A judge’s decision in the case is pending. Whatever 3rd District Judge Laura Scott decides will affect not only The Tribune’s request for records, but the requests from three petitioners who on Thursday all sought the release of a 2017 audio recording of police interviewing Joseph L. Bishop about an allegation that he sexually assaulted a female missionary at the center in 1984.
BYU police had declined to release the recording to the three entities – KUTV-Channel 2, MormonLeaks and Washington-based lawyer Corbin Volluz — citing privacy concerns. In the denial, Chief Larry Stott also noted that BYU police are not subject to the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), but fill some requests as part of its internal practices.
The records committee found that the recording should be made public, but the release was put on hold until the courts decide whether BYU police is subject to GRAMA requests.
No one from BYU or the police department was present at Thursday’s hearing. Paul Tonks, a lawyer with the Utah Attorney General’s Office who represents the records committee, said Thursday that he spoke with BYU attorneys before the hearing and they again took the position that they are not subject to records requests.
“They believe that issue is ultimately going to be decided in the courts,” he said.
Ryan McKnight, MormonLeaks founder, said after the hearing said that while he won his appeal, he hoped the records committee would have ordered the recording to be released, despite the pending lawsuit.
“The idea that BYU [police] is not a governmental agency is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard,” he said. “If we’re going to say they are not subject to GRAMA, then how are they being held accountable by the public, who has entrusted them with this responsibility as police officers?”
According to a BYU police report released in March, Bishop admitted to officers that he took a young woman into a small room at the Provo campus in 1984 and asked to see her breasts. Police were questioning Bishop after the woman, McKenna Denson, reported to officers in 2017 that Bishop sexually assaulted her in a small room in the MTC Center.
Denson in April sued the LDS Church, saying the church placed Bishop in charge of the training center despite “red flag improprieties” years earlier. Bishop, 85, is also listed as a defendant. He has denied assaulting her. The case is still pending in federal court.
The Tribune’s lawsuit centers around a separate issue. Its case stems from a public records request submitted by a Tribune reporter in 2016 amid allegations that BYU had disciplined students who reported sex crimes if they were violating the school’s Honor Code at the time of the assault. The code bans alcohol, coffee and premarital sex, and it regulates students’ appearance and interactions with the opposite sex.
BYU police released some records, but refused to release records of communication between the department and the Mormon school’s Honor Code and Title IX offices.
The university police have said they do not conduct investigations for the Honor Code Office. However, The Tribune has obtained internal BYU documents that show a BYU police lieutenant used his access to Provo police records, via a countywide law enforcement database, for an Honor Code investigation into the conduct of a student who had reported a sexual assault to Provo police.
The Department of Public Safety spent a year investigating how BYU officers access and share their own reports and the records of other Utah County police agencies. While their investigation was completed last July, the Utah attorney general’s office has been reviewing the case ever since — and the findings have not yet been made public.