Gehrke: The police failed Lauren McCluskey and now her family deserves answers and accountability

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy at a press conference regarding the killing of University of Utah student athlete Lauren McCluskey, in Salt Lake City, Thursday Oct. 25, 2018.

So often, after high-profile shootings, the immediate response is to look for new laws that could have prevented a death and ways to save lives in the future.

One of the most tragic aspects of the slaying of 21-year-old Lauren McCluskey is that there were laws in place that could have — should have, even — protected her.

The senior track and field athlete had a whole life ahead of her — finishing her studies, receiving her communication degree, starting a career, building a happy life.

There’s no reason her mother should have had to listen helplessly from hundreds of miles away as her daughter pleaded with her attacker, a spurned man she had briefly dated, “No! No! No!”

It’s hard to imagine the terror her mother must have felt when the phone went silent.

It never should have happened. McCluskey did what she could reasonably do to protect herself. The system failed her. And that failure cost this young woman her life.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

The McCluskey family deserves answers as to why their daughter’s case was mishandled.

The parents of every University of Utah student deserves assurances their children’s safety will not be jeopardized because a complaint isn’t handled quickly and appropriately.

And every Utahn deserves to know that dangerous individuals with long criminal histories are not out on the streets unsupervised where they can victimize innocent people.

McCluskey had broken off her relationship with Melvin Rowland earlier this month after finding out he had lied to her about his criminal record and his age. A few days later, she reported to University police that he and possibly others had been harassing her, extorting money from her by threatening to post intimate images online.

That report should have been handled with the greatest urgency. Yet the University police didn’t start investigating for six days.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the police claimed the Department of Corrections said Rowland had walked away from a halfway house and couldn’t be located. They now admit that was bad information.

Corrections officials assert they were never told of McCluskey’s complaint. If they had been, they may have been able to put Rowland, who had spent much of his adult life in and out of prison, back behind bars for violating his parole. (Full disclosure, my brother works for the Department of Corrections).

At Rowland’s previous parole hearings, officials seemed to downplay the danger he posed, including a history of sexual violence, an admission of raping at least three women and an attraction to underage girls.

The complete breakdown of communication between University police and parole agents ended with gunshots and a needless loss of a young life.

On Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert, to his credit, said that he has ordered an investigation into the Department of Corrections, which presumably will focus on whether parole agents adequately monitored Rowland and whether the Parole Board should have even let him out.

“We will make sure that we get answers to the questions we have and take whatever necessary corrective actions are required,” Herbert said Thursday.

Also on Thursday, U. President Ruth Watkins said she will initiate an investigation into the protocols used by University police. That investigation should look into how the police force responded to McCluskey’s complaint, whether it was reported to Corrections, and if not, why not?

Police Chief Dale Brophy said Thursday that he didn’t contact parole officers because he didn’t know Rowland was on parole — just that he was a registered sex offender. But that information is readily available to officers with a simple query of the state’s offender database, which they apparently never searched.

These investigations are necessary measures and hopefully will yield answers and, more importantly, accountability. Because nobody who takes appropriate steps when harassed should fear meeting the same tragic fate as Lauren McCluskey.

(Steve C. Wilson/University of Utah via AP)This Aug. 21, 2018 photo, provided by the University of Utah, shows Lauren McCluskey, a member of the University of Utah cross country and track and field team. McCluskey, a University of Utah student, was shot and killed on campus by a man she had briefly dated, Melvin Rowland, who was found dead hours later inside a church Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, authorities said.