Tribune editorial: Lauren McCluskey didn’t have to die, and Utah must do better

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students leave flowers on the steps of the Park Building at the University of Utah following a vigil for Lauren McCluskey on Wed. Oct 24, 2018. McCluskey was killed on campus on Monday.

It is not a question of whether Utah failed Lauren McCluskey. The question is whether we can avoid that failure the next time.

Multiple investigations have been launched after the University of Utah student was shot in a car outside her dorm, but what is already known paints a devastating picture of missed opportunities — any of which may have been enough to keep her alive.

McCluskey’s killer, Melvin Rowland, was convicted 14 years ago of sexually assaulting a teen. In a state parole board hearing six years ago he admitted he raped her, as well as two other women. And in 2016 he acknowledged that he talked about harming a parole officer. His attorney said he didn’t have Rowland’s records with him but he didn’t think he had a violent history. Two years later, the board put him on parole after he completed sex-offender treatment.

The University of Utah’s police chief Thursday described his department’s criminal investigation protocol, and that protocol doesn’t have its detectives talk to other agencies until they’re ready to make an arrest. Aren’t there times when talking to other agencies actually helps build a case?

The chief also said they relied in part on McCluskey’s own statements that she didn’t feel Rowland was a threat. Police, not McCluskey, are the experienced people in that conversation. They knew he was a registered sex offender, and they knew she had just broken off a relationship. Domestic violence experts say that is when victims are often vulnerable.

There is understandable motivation in Chief Dale Brophy’s statement that it is only the department’s protocols — not the individual officers’ actions — that will be investigated. But that cannot be an actual restraint put on outside investigators.

No investigation should begin with the presumption that officers did something wrong, but to say individual officers' actions won’t be part of the investigation? What does that even mean?

In fact, one of Brophy’s bosses, the chair of the U. Board of Trustees, has already acknowledged the board met to talk about the “competence” of university police. That doesn’t sound like they’re limiting their review to protocols.

While the investigations unfold, it is also important to remember what McCluskey’s death is not about.

It’s not an invitation to victim shame. It was her murderer who ended her life.

It’s not a time to revive old attitudes about race.

It’s not a call to arms. There is nothing that says this could have been prevented if more people had been carrying weapons.

Finally, it’s not a time to hide facts. Will there be a lawsuit? Possibly, but that’s no reason to not go public with every excruciating detail that investigators uncover. Whatever advantage in negotiating a lower settlement will be outweighed by the public’s right and need to know.

In recent years this newspaper has shined light on Utah’s poor history of protecting students on its college campuses. Clearly there is more work to be done. Lauren McCluskey’s death must be a turning point.