Three law enforcement experts will investigate the University of Utah’s police department, its policies, and — despite earlier statements — the “actions taken by individual officers” after a student was shot to death on campus last week.
U. President Ruth Watkins announced the independent review team Friday, and it includes two former commissioners of the Utah Department of Public Safety: John T. Nielsen, who served in that post from 1985 through 1988 and also is an attorney; and Keith Squires, who retired as commissioner in August.
Former University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Chief Sue Riseling will serve as the third member of the team. She is now executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.
Watkins said she chose the panel members based on their experience in law enforcement and with campus safety. The U. previously said the investigation would focus on policies and not on individual officers’ conduct. That position shifted Friday, and Watkins said she has asked the team to complete its review by Dec. 17.
A related inquiry into overall campus safety is to be finished in the spring.
“I want to be clear that the review team will act with full autonomy,” she said, noting they will have complete access to staff and records.
The university and its police department have faced questions for how campus officers handled complaints of extortion reported by student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey in the weeks before her death.
The man she alleged was involved in the harassment, Melvin S. Rowland, killed her Oct. 22 outside the dorms. He died by suicide hours later.
“We have committed to Lauren’s family that we will learn from this in the hope of preventing another tragedy like this on our campus,” Watkins added.
The Department of Public Safety is best known as the parent organization of the Utah Highway Patrol, though it also includes the State Bureau of Investigation, the state crime lab and the state fire marshal’s office.
Nielsen, who will lead the investigations, said Thursday he hesitated to say where the review will go, but said his team anticipates answering “whether or not Lauren’s concerns were taken seriously.”
“I’ve accepted this responsibility with the firm understanding that it must be done correctly and thoroughly,” Nielsen said. “We’ll go where the facts lead us.”
McCluskey’s parents have said Rowland, a registered sex offender, lied to their daughter about his name, age and criminal history. She ended their relationship on Oct. 9, after dating him for a month and finding out his actual identity.
She first reported to police three days later that she was getting harassing messages from Rowland, or possibly his friends. Campus police told her there wasn’t much they could do.
The next day McCluskey told officers that she received emails and texts threatening to release “compromising pictures” of her if she didn’t send them $1,000. U. police did not open a formal investigation until Oct. 19.
Officers did not call Rowland’s parole officer, who might have arrested him for violating the terms of his release. In fact, they never figured out Rowland was on parole.
He had an extensive criminal history, moving in and out of prison after a handful of parole violations. He was convicted of attempted forcible sex abuse and enticing a minor over the internet in 2004.
Watkins said Friday that the university is not waiting for the completion of the reviews to take action on improving campus safety.
University police, she said, will be asked to re-evaluate how the department prioritizes cases after the delay in responding to McCluskey. The school will examine campus for places to install more cameras and better lights and let students know when and where they can park closer to buildings.
She has asked the U.’s Housing & Residential Education office to conduct reviews of the secured dorms to see where students might be propping open doors or letting in strangers. U. Police Chief Dale Brophy has said that Rowland waited inside the building where McCluskey lived hours before her death, after residents he had previously befriended let him in.
The school’s president is also asking several departments — including housing, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action — to conduct more trainings with staff and students on dealing with emergencies.
“We always need to be looking at ourselves, learning and improving,” Watkins said. “That work is not done.”
University spokeswoman Annalisa Purser said the school currently requires all new students to take online training modules on sexual assault and alcohol abuse prevention, but there is no way to see whether students have completed those or to enforce a sanction if they have not (such as not allowing them to enroll in classes). Though that started in fall 2017 and McCluskey enrolled in 2015, she would have completed the training as a member of the athletic department, which requires its students to participate every year.
When new staff members are hired at the U., they’re asked to complete a larger package of trainings, including modules on emergency management and sexual misconduct — which discuss where to report harassment or violence. But the university does not enforce completion, Purser said.
The U.'s police department has its own set of trainings and a schedule for renewing those, but would not release that information Friday because investigators asked the office not to “go into detail on current processes or trainings.”
The university’s review is one of multiple inquiries into whether Utah law enforcement made mistakes in supervising Rowland and handling McCluskey’s complaints against him. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has also called for investigations of the Utah Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Parole. The State Bureau of Investigation has named a team to handle those and it is currently gathering information, a spokesperson said.