University of Utah police chief says school ‘scapegoated’ him in wake of McCluskey case

Jun 17, 2021, 10:10 AM | Updated: 10:14 am
university of utah police chief rodney chatman placed on leave Police chief mccluskey...
PHOTO: Rodney Chatman, credit University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah police chief who took over the embattled department in the wake of Lauren McCluskey’s murder says he faced reprisal from his employer for seeking to inform students and employees about missteps in the case.

Rodney Chatman alleges the school also retaliated against him for raising concerns that it was violating federal requirements for reporting sexual assaults, according to a notice of claim obtained by KSL.com via a public records request.

Chatman contends he was trying to make changes he’d been hired to bring about, but says administrators reacted to his attempts at transparency and change by threatening his job and suggesting misconduct on his part.

He’s seeking damages of at least $10 million, according to the notice dated April 27 and sent to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which represents the university in civil cases.

“The university leaders have scapegoated Chief Chatman by outrageously and falsely insinuating that he had committed bad acts in violation of public policy when he attempted to alert them to possible violations of the law,” states the legal notice, the first step toward filing a lawsuit.

Attorney Kathleen McConkie said Tuesday she’s preparing a suit on behalf of her client and declined to give details on settlement discussions.

“We’d be happy if the university wanted to negotiate, but at this point, we’re pretty far apart,” McConkie said Tuesday. University spokesman Chris Nelson declined to comment.

Chatman has been on administrative leave from the university since December and is a finalist for the top public safety job at Kansas University.

In addition to the whistleblower claim, he is asserting contract violations, defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress that caused him “mental anguish” and shame.

Chatman says he ordered a new probe in McCluskey’s death after finding a previous review “whitewashed” the officers’ actions.

The new investigation concluded that former officer Miguel Deras shared explicit photos of student Lauren McCluskey with other officers before she was murdered on campus in 2018. McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete and communications major, was shot and killed by a man she’d reported to university police, telling them he sought to extort her after she broke off their relationship.

The report led to the firing of two campus officers, and a supervisor quit. It also resulted in Deras’ firing from his new job at the Logan Police Department.

Chatman alleges an attorney who has long represented police raised criminal allegations against him in retaliation for the review, filing a complaint with the attorney general’s office just a day after the officer’s firing in August. An attorney for the prominent police union in Utah disputes the allegation.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office declined to bring charges against Chatman in response to the allegations that he improperly wore a badge and gun before being certified as a law enforcement officer in the state. District Attorney Sim Gill cited insufficient evidence to support the misdemeanor offense of impersonating an officer, concluding Chatman didn’t intend to deceive anyone.

Attorney Jeremy Jones lodged the complaint that launched the investigation, and did so on behalf of the Utah chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, he told KSL.com. Jones said the complaint’s main allegation was that the university improperly released disciplinary reports tied to the investigation Chatman had ordered, while the badge and gun allegations were secondary.

Jones said his client wasn’t seeking to punish Chatman, whose experience is similar to those of the fired officers in that it reflects the university’s attempts to deflect from issues at the top levels of administration.

“I think what both sides can agree on is that the University of Utah can’t seem to do right by anybody,” Jones said Wednesday.

The state investigation included 17 interviews, including several with current and former employees of the university and its police department. Some of those who spoke with investigators — many whose names were redacted from the report — reported seeing Chatman openly carry a gun at times and conceal his weapon at other times.

Marlon Lynch, the university’s former chief of public safety, told investigators he had seen Chatman wearing a badge, and recounted Chatman saying he had carried a gun while at the police station for three or four days because “he was in fear for his life” after the firing of university officers whom Chatman described as known to carry guns.

The university placed Chatman on paid administrative leave last year and gave him three weeks to consider resigning. During that time, Chatman points out Lynch, then-U. chief of public safety, said “Rodney may have violated certain guidelines that are also criminal offenses,” among other statements Chatman alleges were false and hurt his reputation.

He’d lobbied his supervisor to hold a “debriefing” with students, faculty and staff members on the mistakes made during the McCluskey case, the letter says.

Almost immediately after that, he alleges, he was told his employment in the position would “terminate” and the university asked him to withdraw his application for certification through Utah’s police academy, although he’d already gotten the credential. Chatman also alleges the university changed his title from chief to director and kept it that way after he was certified as a Utah law enforcement officer.

Chatman had also repeatedly warned that the university was at risk of being audited for possible violations of federal campus crime reporting and gender discrimination requirements that could expose the school to fines and negative publicity if proven to be true, his letter states. But the university “rebuffed both requests,” the letter says.

Parents of Lauren McCluskey end lawsuit following settlement payment

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University of Utah police chief says school ‘scapegoated’ him in wake of McCluskey case