University of Utah officer who mishandled Lauren McCluskey’s concerns has now been disciplined for mistakes on another domestic violence case

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police cars sit in the parking lot of the University of Utah police department on Wed., June 5, 2019.

Officer Miguel Deras mishandled reports from student-athlete Lauren McCluskey weeks before she was killed on campus last fall. But instead of being fired, he and the entire University of Utah Police Department went through training to better recognize the warning signs of domestic violence he and others had missed.

Then, months later, Deras made the same mistakes again on another woman’s case.

And for that, he received the first written warning in his personnel file. It’s the only disciplinary action at the school, so far, to come out of the department’s shortcomings and subsequent reform after McCluskey’s murder on Oct. 22. U. President Ruth Watkins had said shortly after McCluskey’s death that no individual officers would be punished for how they had managed — or mismanaged — her case. Watkins has held to that.

Instead of looking back, U. spokesman Chris Nelson said, the school plans to hold individuals accountable moving forward only if they break the new policies.

“That’s why we issued the letter now,” he added. “The expectation is that the employee does better the next time.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins at a news conference presenting the findings of a review of the Lauren McCluskey case, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018. John T. Nielsen at right.

The Salt Lake Tribune recently received Deras’ warning — as well as two mostly complimentary letters written to administrators — after submitting a public records request asking for files of staff discipline related to McCluskey’s reports. The officer could not be reached for comment.

McCluskey’s parents say the response was too lenient; they have criticized how police dismissed their daughter’s reports of harassments for weeks up until her murder and called for staff discipline. The citation, to them, suggests that Deras hasn’t learned anything from their daughter’s death.

“The fact that he made the same mistake shows that the culture has not changed,” Jill McCluskey, Lauren’s mother, wrote in an email. “Women’s requests for help are not being taken seriously.”

McCluskey had briefly dated Melvin S. Rowland but ended their relationship Oct. 9 after discovering that he had lied to her about his age and criminal history. The 37-year-old registered sex offender, who was on parole, shot the 21-year-old track athlete outside her campus dorm. He died by suicide hours later.

McCluskey’s early concerns were not taken seriously by campus police, investigators later found. Officers, including Deras, did not recognize warning signs of potential relationship violence.

She had called Deras hours before she was killed. She told him she had received an email from someone impersonating a police deputy chief but who she believed was Rowland. The officer didn’t relay her complaints to anyone else in the department.

Officers also never learned that Rowland was on parole; some of McCluskey’s earliest allegations could have sent him back to prison for violations of his terms of release.

It was one of the biggest missteps pointed out in an independent review of how the university handled the case.

Four months later, Deras was assigned a domestic violence case — and he made the same error.

He did not research the suspect’s parole records or discover what might be considered a violation — despite the man telling him he was on parole. Deras also did not include the man’s criminal history in his reports.

In February, Deras went out on a call to talk to a woman and provide her information about how to report assault by a partner. When he arrived, the suspect was there, too.

Deras let that man stay as he interviewed the concerned woman. That is against the new policies. Additionally, he did not call for backup, which the police department now requires for cases involving fights or abuse between partners when both parties are present.

He did not check if the man was on parole even after the man “attempted to call his parole agent in your presence,” his discipline letter states.

A lieutenant continued: “Failure to obtain all pertinent information regarding a person who is currently on probation/parole could create a substantial public safety risk by allowing an offender to continue behaviors that are in violation to his probation/parole agreements.”

The write-up says that Deras had signed a statement seven days earlier acknowledging the updated rules but disregarded them in this case and put the woman at risk. It did not end like McCluskey’s case, the university acknowledges, but it could have.

Deras accepted the warning without appeal, and it was placed in his file.

It noted: “Your improvement must be immediate and sustained or I will take further disciplinary action up to and including the termination of your employment.”

Since that letter was issued, one detective in the campus police department has left. She was assigned to investigate McCluskey’s concerns but didn’t work on the case until after the student had been killed. It appears the detective was fired or disciplined, and she is appealing.

The university has declined to provide any records while that is in process but has said, like with Deras’ case, it was not directly related to the McCluskey case.

Administrative letters

Along with Deras’ written warning, there were also two letters sent to university administrators labeled as discipline. But both start with, “I am writing to express appreciation.”

One was given to campus Police Chief Dale Brophy; the other to Barb Snyder, the retiring vice president for student affairs.

Brophy received the letter in his file March 6 (about a month after Deras responded to the domestic violence case). It was sent by John Nixon, the vice president for administrative services at the U. It largely congratulated the chief for putting in place the recommended fixes since McCluskey’s death.

“As we move forward,” it continues, “I want to be very direct in expressing my expectations: the actions you and your team have implemented must be followed and adopted as part of our institutional culture. Periodic reviews of implementation, roughly quarterly, will be conducted to ensure that new practices are followed.”

The letter to Snyder, who oversaw campus housing in her position, is mostly duplicative, but it is instead signed by President Watkins. At the end it thanks Snyder for her “leadership and vigilance.”

Nelson said: “I would describe both of these as letters of expectation.”

The spokesman added that the notes were focused on Brophy’s and Snyder’s efforts to implement change after McCluskey’s death. The McCluskeys believe they mirror a controversial awards ceremony that the U. Police Department held earlier this month that honored three employees for their work related to the McCluskey case.

Jill McCluskey said that, like that event, the letters are “counterproductive to positive change.” She added: “There is a misunderstanding of the seriousness of the situations.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy at a press conference regarding the killing of University of Utah student athlete Lauren McCluskey, in Salt Lake City, Thursday Oct. 25, 2018.

Still, Nelson noted, Brophy has overseen the increased training for officers. The department has hired a victim advocate. The chief has also led efforts to have the department nationally accredited. And there is now an on-call detective available at any time, who is updated on all pending files so nothing falls through a gap when someone is off.

Snyder has primarily focused on sharing information across campus, including sending safety reports from housing staff to police. Before, there was limited communication and practically nonexistent relationships between offices.

McCluskey’s friends had reported to housing that they were scared by Rowland’s control over her, how he talked about bringing guns to campus and often stayed in her room. Dorm employees considered — but did not file — a report and did not pass on the information to officers.

Snyder has also talked to students about the guest policy and looked to increase safety by adding more security cameras near the dorms.

Housing employee resigns

Only one employee has voluntarily left the university in connection to the McCluskey case, Nelson confirmed.

The individual worked for Housing & Residential Education “in a position of authority,” though Nelson declined to say what the title was or how the person was involved with reporting McCluskey’s concerns.

The employee left Feb. 28, according to a redacted copy of the resignation letter. It reads, in part: “I appreciate all the opportunities I’ve had here, and I sincerely hope that I’m leaving having made an impact during my time in this role.”

It is unclear if this is the same individual whom McCluskey’s friends reported their concerns to about Rowland.

Nelson said: “I think the letter would have to speak for itself.”