In closed meeting, University of Utah trustees discuss ‘competence’ of police department and school officials after student’s slaying

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) H. David Burton, chair, University of Utah Board of Trustees, introduces the program for Ruth Watkins inauguration as the University of Utah's 16th president, and first female, at Kingsbury Hall on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018.

The University of Utah’s board of trustees had a conversation behind closed doors Friday about “the competence” of the school’s police department and its administrators after a student was shot and killed on campus this week, said H. David Burton, the board’s chairman.

“Certainly, it bears on the competence of everyone,” Burton told The Salt Lake Tribune after the 90-minute closed meeting ended. “What we need to do, if anything, is continue to enhance the safekeeping of the university.”

The school and its police force have faced questions for how they handled complaints of extortion reported by university student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey in the weeks before her death. The man she alleged was involved in the harassment, Melvin Rowland, shot and killed her Monday outside the campus dorms. He died by suicide hours later.

The U.’s trustees discussed a timeline of the case, including when McCluskey first talked to officers — a few days after she ended her monthlong relationship with Rowland upon finding out he had lied about his name, age and criminal history. Burton said they also talked about police protocols and how they were enacted in this case and heard reports from campus police Chief Dale Brophy and U. President Ruth Watkins.

“This meeting was to give the board of trustees an update on what had transpired and what the university has done,” Burton said.

The board closed the meeting, Burton said, because the members were discussing matters of personnel and said that included notes on “the competence of the board of trustees, the university and the police department.”

That approach was a contrast to statements Watkins and Brophy made Thursday, when they said that a promised investigation will not focus on individual officers' conduct. Rather, it would only review protocols.

The Utah Open and Public Meetings Act permits a public body to close a meeting to discuss personnel but says that should apply to “an individual,” not a number of departments and employees.

“It is not intended to be an excuse for public bodies to be able to close meetings to discuss broad issues of competence,” said media law attorney David Reymann. “I think this is stretching the exception beyond the breaking point.”

He said the act is intended to cover private personnel matters, not entire departments — otherwise “virtually anything they talked about would be behind closed doors.”

U. spokesman Chris Nelson said the school “stands by the vote of its trustees to close their executive session this morning to discuss a matter of character and competence.” The session was not recorded, he added.

The Salt Lake Tribune has submitted a public records request for the meeting minutes.

Additionally, a meeting notice was sent out to reporters Thursday afternoon, about 17 hours before the trustees sat down at 9 a.m. Friday. The Public Meetings Act requires 24-hour public notice and posting of agendas for meetings of public bodies. Nelson noted, though, that the notice was posted on the state’s website at 8:34 a.m. Thursday.

Eleven days before she was killed, McCluskey told detectives that Rowland, or possibly his friends, had sent emails and texts on Oct. 13 threatening to release “compromising pictures” of her if she didn’t send them $1,000. After she transferred the money, McCluskey talked to U. police, which did not open a formal investigation until six days later.

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, putting him on the sex offender registry.

Brophy said during a Thursday news conference that a delay occurred in the case because his detectives were busy with other work. Burton said one person at the meeting questioned whether the department had enough resources.

The general response, he said, was: “We can always use more.”

Burton added: “If there are resources that are required, we’re going to provide them. No question. … There is an abundance of things that can be done to invest in security.”

He said among those would be ensuring officers have “enough tools” and the newest technology. It might also mean hiring more staff.

The U.’s police department has 33 sworn police officers, which includes the chief, four detectives, command staff and patrol officers. Two additional security divisions — one for the main campus and one for the hospitals — are made up of civilian guards.

Most other trustees did not return calls Friday. Board member Phil Clinger deferred to Burton. And messages to John Nixon, the vice president for administrative services, were also not returned. Brophy, the campus police chief, reports to Nixon.

Watkins has recommended an outside investigator review the department. She began reviewing candidates to conduct that investigation Friday, Nelson said, and expects to name someone in about a week.