Robert Gehrke: The University of Utah’s latest failure in the Lauren McCluskey murder should lead to these actions

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune filephoto) A woman asks for justice for Lauren McCluskey during a protest against police brutality in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020.

Lauren McCluskey hadn’t been dead long, shot by an abusive ex-boyfriend, but the University of Utah police officers were already focused on their most important question.

“I wonder what she looked like,” a sergeant at the murder scene wondered — a question utterly irrelevant aside from his own morbid curiosity.

Officer Miguel Deras was happy to oblige, pulling out his phone and showing his colleague an explicit photo of the young victim.

McCluskey had gone to police nine days earlier, telling them that someone — she believed her ex-boyfriend, whom she had broken up with after she found out he had lied about his age and being a sex offender — was threatening to release compromising photos of her if she didn’t pay $1,000.

After McCluskey came to police and after her worried calls and texts to officers, neither Deras nor any other U. police officer ever bothered to check the ex-boyfriend’s offender status.

What did Deras do? According to a new review by the Utah Department of Public Safety, he showed the photos around the office to his colleagues who, according to an officer who was there, made crude comments about the photos.

“Cute girl,” one officer said.

“Lucky you got that case,” another said.

Deras boasted he could look at the images of McCluskey whenever he wanted.

McCluskey, who was already the frightened victim of sexual exploitation, was an object in their eyes and victimized again.

Imagine the message that sends to other women who might turn to the university police needing help.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

If it wasn’t for my colleague Courtney Tanner’s tenacious reporting on this, we never would have known how bad it was. Tanner fought for months to force the university to release records relating to Deras’ handling of the case and the school’s response.

What she found is that the university had conducted an internal affairs investigation that the acting police chief never bothered to read. The investigator had told the chief there was “nothing there” — which the investigator later said was meant to convey that he couldn’t prove that Deras had downloaded the photos onto his personal phone.

The acting chief passed that along to the university’s lawyers and the school’s spokesman and only read the internal affairs report after Tanner reported that Deras had shown the photos to other officers.

When the university’s new police chief, Rodney Chatman, read the report, he found it lacking, asking for the DPS review due to concerns about the “thoroughness of the report.”

That second report again verified Deras had displayed the photos, but no evidence he had downloaded them or sent them to anyone else — which is kind of beside the point.

Deras continues to deny any wrongdoing. He left the university after mishandling a domestic violence case and worked at the Logan Police Department until Friday, when the department fired him.

We are now approaching two years since McCluskey was murdered, and the university continues to find new ways to fumble the response.

Here’s what ought to happen now: Chief Chatman, who appears sincere about his desire to restore trust in the campus police, deserves a chance, but if his efforts are stymied the department should be dissolved and the school should contract with the Salt Lake City Police Department where Chatman can head the division.

It might seem like just a name change. But it would make the department accountable to an elected mayor instead of an appointed bureaucracy, and that’s significant.

The Legislature should pass a bill sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard that would impose criminal penalties on officers proven to misuse evidence and display or share intimate images of victims outside of legitimate investigative purposes.

Utah’s Peace Officer Standards and Training board should ensure Deras doesn’t simply land at another police department.

The university, as I have written before, should acknowledge its numerous failures throughout this process, apologize to the McCluskey family, and settle the lawsuit filed by McCluskey’s parents, who say they want to use the proceeds for campus safety initiatives in their daughter’s name.

And the university’s Board of Trustees should decide whether the time has come for President Ruth Watkins, who has been silent on this issue but has generally overseen the embarrassingly clumsy circle-the-wagons response to the murder, to step aside and let someone else try to salvage the school’s reputation and finally make this right.