Tribune editorial: Lauren McCluskey’s death was preventable

(Photo courtesy McCluskey family) Lauren McCluskey sits for this undated family photo. McCluskey was murdered Oct. 22, 2018, on the University of Utah campus.

Was Lauren McCluskey’s murder an inevitability?

Of course not.

Outside investigators released their report into the death of McCluskey outside her University of Utah dorm, and it is a withering assessment of an undertrained and undermanaged university police department.

U. President Ruth Watkins has embraced the experts’ findings and pledged to pursue its multiple recommendations, but she also said the report “does not offer us a reason to believe” the campus shooting couldn’t have been prevented.

Casting the University of Utah student’s death as something unavoidable is not just inaccurate. It also lowers expectations for a safe campus.

Watkins is right that ultimate responsibility for McCluskey’s death belongs the man who pulled the trigger, Melvin Rowland. No one but he should carry that burden.

But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been prevented by better police work. In bullet points, the investigators describe a university police department that was ill-equipped for the situation:

* Rowland was on parole, but “there was never an attempt by any of the officers involved to check his ‘offender status.’”

* The department is understaffed, both in patrol officers and in officers trained in domestic violence investigation.

* The department doesn’t have victim advocates on staff, nor does it have a “coordinated working relationship” with victim advocates on campus.

* McCluskey reached out to the detective assigned to her case via email on the morning before she was killed, but that email never got a response before she died because the officer was not on duty. McCluskey persisted, calling another officer, but that officer didn’t act on her call.

The report paints a picture of an antiquated force stuck in 20th century policing. McCluskey’s parents make that clear in their response:

“Responsibility for assessing Lauren’s level of personal danger was entirely placed on Lauren, despite the fact that she had just ended a manipulative relationship and despite her numerous attempts to report elevating concerns to the UUPD.”

A Q&A from the university’s public relations department offered this answer to the question of whether the university was disciplining anyone as a result of the McCluskey case:

“The review team’s report identified gaps in training, awareness and enforcement of certain policies rather than lapses in individual performance. We believe the solution to those problems is better training, awareness and education of staff and students.”

If the litany of mistakes are indeed due to officers’ lack of knowledge, who is responsible for that lack? Who is in charge of sounding the horn if police staff is inadequate? The University of Utah spends $10 million annually on public safety. In the immediate aftermath of this murder, no one spoke up to say the department was improperly trained or understaffed.

The biggest deficiency shown by this investigation is that police didn’t know just how unprepared they were.

Discipline? The better question is who is best fit to carry out the university’s renewed commitment to competence. It won’t be those who didn’t see the problems in the first place.