University of Utah police chief announces retirement — 9 months after Lauren McCluskey’s murder

(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.

The police chief of the University of Utah has announced he will retire, a decision that comes amid turmoil — which largely hasn’t relented for months — over how the school and its officers mishandled repeated reports from student Lauren McCluskey in the weeks before she was killed on campus last fall.

And he’ll be leaving with a severance package and a retirement paid for by the state.

Dale Brophy, who started at the U. as deputy chief in 2013 and took over as chief two years later, stepped down Tuesday with an email that said his departure was voluntary and effective Oct. 15. The announcement of his retirement at age 46 came as a surprise, nearly nine months after McCluskey’s murder and despite U. President Ruth Watkins’ insistence he had "the ability, the talent and the commitment” to reform his department.

“This move will open a new chapter for me and provide the department an opportunity to continue forward under new leadership,” Brophy wrote in the email sent to his staff.

Shortly after their daughter was killed, McCluskey’s parents had demanded on national television that Brophy be fired. And the calls for his departure hadn’t let up since.

With his voluntary resignation, he will receive a severance that includes a year of pay — at his current salary of $151,000 — and benefits, said Jeff Herring, the U.'s chief human resources officer. Herring noted that the university and Brophy came to an agreement on the package, but he was not pushed out.

But Herring added: “It’s probably in the best interest of the institution to find a way to have a new set of eyes on the situation.”

Additionally, because Brophy will be leaving a career in law enforcement in October — after he qualifies for credit for 25 full years of service — the state will pay him approximately 60% of his wages as part of a retirement plan it has since grandfathered. Under the new system, officers who spend 25 years in the field get 35% of their wages. Both systems are based on the highest salary officers receive for three consecutive years.

Brophy got the bump to $151,000 this month when the whole department received raises in an attempt to match other institutions’ officer salaries. Before, he was making $137,000.

“This hasn’t been an easy decision, but the timing is right,” he said in his email.

The McCluskey family last month filed a lawsuit against the university, naming the chief and faulting him for leading a force that was unaccredited, untrained, unconcerned and unresponsive to allegations reported by women on campus — particularly those having to do with sexual abuse or domestic violence. They have said the campus police department could have done more to prevent their daughter’s death.

Within days of McCluskey’s murder, Brophy and Watkins insisted that no individual officers’ actions would be examined and only policies would be reviewed. Watkins later requested an independent investigation, which found officers failed to recognize the escalating threats. Still, she said, no one in the department would be disciplined and Brophy had her “full confidence.” In March, the chief received a letter for his file that largely congratulated him for his work in making adjustments.

So it’s unclear why he decided to retire now. In his email to his staff, he said he will “pursue other opportunities.”

“We have accomplished so much together and I am very proud of the work we have done,” he added. "Our ability to prepare, respond, communicate and act have dramatically improved.”

Brophy has led the campus department for the past three years. Though he’s previously faced criticism for how his officers handled an alleged rape on campus in 2016 and the arrest of a nurse in 2017, the McCluskey case led to sustained concerns of dysfunction under his leadership.

McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was shot and killed Oct. 22 outside her dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole, who died by suicide hours later. She had called campus police several times in the weeks before to say she had broken up with Rowland and that he had been extorting and harassing her. When she felt officers weren’t responding quickly enough or taking her concerns seriously, she twice called Salt Lake City police for more help. She was directed back to the U. both times.

A campus detective there didn’t open a formal case until Oct. 19. After that, she did not return to work until after McCluskey had been killed.

Before Brophy’s announcement Tuesday, that detective had been the only one to leave the department in relation to the case. The U. has declined to say whether she resigned or was fired.

A rocky tenure as chief

The search for a replacement for Brophy will begin immediately, Herring noted, with the hope of selecting a new chief before he steps down in October — one week before the one-year anniversary of McCluskey’s slaying.

U. spokesman Chris Nelson declined to comment on why the chief was retiring then, saying, "We’re not going to speak to that level of personnel decision.” But, Herring added: “I think 25 years in law enforcement is a very full career.”

Watkins, who has led the university since April 2018, also issued a statement in response to Brophy’s departure, noting that the school has focused on improving security for the past nine months.

“This is an ongoing, institution-wide effort and our campus is safer because of this work,” she said. “We have and will continue to make changes with the best interests of our campus and our students in mind. Chief Brophy’s announcement is in keeping with that intent."

McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt, on Tuesday called the chief’s departure “a step in the right direction.”

They noted: “We hope that his replacement will create a culture in which police are prepared and quick to respond to and prevent situations in which women are in danger. Since Lauren lived in an on-campus apartment, the campus police were her only option. They were unresponsive to her. ... We do not wish ill on anyone, but we are glad that real change is starting to occur."

Brophy stepped into the position of chief in January 2015, replacing Scott Folsom, who had led the department since 2004. About a year and a half after Brophy took over, the department came under fire for mishandling a rape case.

A woman had reported being raped at gunpoint in a truck by a masked man on Halloween in 2016. University officials didn’t send out campus alerts until more than two hours after the report. And after a month of investigating, detectives dismissed the case — sending an email to students and faculty that many felt insinuated the woman was lying.

"We are not calling into question that this person may have experienced something terrible at some point in her life," Brophy said at the time, "but we are not able to find evidence that a crime occurred at the place, date and time reported."

That response could make sexual assault victims reluctant to report to campus police, critics said.

In reviewing the case, federal officials later found “potentially serious shortcomings” in how students were informed and kept updated about the alleged rape. And, they said, the U. wasn’t complying with requirements to publicly release data on crimes, including sexual assaults committed on or near campus.

After that, Brophy said in an interview published by the university that “these cases are often very difficult and rarely black and white.”

He added: “Since I took office as the chief, our approach to sexual assaults has always been the same. We start by believing and then conduct a trauma-informed investigation.”

But, less than a year after that, Brophy’s department came under the microscope again — this time on a national scale.

In July 2017, a Salt Lake City police detective arrested a nurse at University Hospital. Nurse Alex Wubbels had refused to allow the detective to obtain a blood sample from an unconscious patient and called campus officers when the confrontation became heated.

When a U. officer arrived on scene, he stood nearby and did not try to defuse the situation. And security officers, also under Brophy’s Department of Public Safety, said they could not “get involved” in the police matter.

Instead, they watched as the Salt Lake City detective handcuffed and forcibly carried Wubbels out the door. When video of the encounter was released, the case garnered national attention and the U. was criticized for not stepping in during the campus dispute.

Brophy later acknowledged that his officers didn’t use the best approach.

“We could have stepped up and been a champion and advocate for Alex at that time,” he said afterward. “Having seen the video and firsthand what she went through, and what she tried to do to de-escalate and solve the problem, I think that somebody else — [university] security and/or police — could have stepped up and taken that role from her and been the advocate for her like they should’ve been.”

‘Inappropriate’ conduct at West Valley City

The chief’s experience at the U., however, was not the first time he faced censure for his job performance.

Brophy started his police career in West Valley City, where he was hired as an officer in September 1994. He rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant before he resigned in October 2013 to join the U.’s staff.

According to his personnel file, which was obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open-records request, Brophy was investigated while there for sexually harassing a female coworker.

In April 2002, Brophy was accused of grabbing the back of a female secretary’s bra as she walked past him. Two witnesses reported the incident, and Brophy acknowledged that he did it.

“Brophy admitted the allegation, saying it was a stupid, prank-like thing to do,” the report says. “By his own admission, his actions were immature and inappropriate, and his status as a senior manager in the organization only exacerbates the impropriety of what he did.”

During the review of the incident, the department also concluded that Brophy had rubbed this woman’s back a previous time without her consent. He was suspended for 80 hours and required to complete a training on sexual harassment.

In July 2003, Brophy was again disciplined. This time, he allegedly yelled at a female coworker over the phone.

“You became angry and profane,” the letter in his file read. “This is not acceptable.”

During his tenure in West Valley City, he was also reprimanded three times for crashing his patrol car while on duty. Brophy did not receive any discipline during his time at the U.

The mistakes with McCluskey

The morning after McCluskey was killed on campus, Brophy addressed the media — and his remarks showed for the first time how little research his department had done on the case.

The chief told reporters that Rowland had walked away from a state halfway house for parolees and men transitioning out of prison. That was not true.

In fact, Rowland was living at the Salt Lake City address listed for him on the sex offender registry. But campus officers never checked his parole status and made no attempts to contact him. There were no policies requiring them to do so — though some of the allegations McCluskey had reported could have led to Rowland’s arrest for violation of his terms of release.

The later independent review began to unravel even more mistakes made by the department in handling her concerns.

The first time McCluskey reported that she was being harassed by Rowland to campus police — on Oct. 12 — they told her there was nothing they could do to help. She called again the next day to say that she received emails and texts threatening to release compromising pictures of her if she didn’t send $1,000; she said she had sent the money.

The report criticized the department for not recognizing that McCluskey was at risk based on the messages, which should have been viewed as “evidence of possible dangers” of interpersonal violence, not just extortion. And officers never referred her to a victim advocate.

“As we examined the totality of this troubling event,” the reviewers said, “we discovered that there were several indications that Lauren McCluskey was in trouble. Had victim advocates been engaged, Lauren might not have been left to assess the dangerousness of her situation on her own.”

McCluskey reached out several more times — including in the morning before she was killed — but no work was ever done to investigate her case until after she was killed.

The reviewers described the university’s police department as an inept force that was not trained to recognize or respond to possible relationship violence; didn’t know how and wasn’t expected to check on a suspect’s parole status; and leaned toward communicating with victims by email or text rather than in person.

They recommended that the U.’s police department hire more officers and a victim advocate and train all police staff about interpersonal violence issues. Brophy was tasked with leading the force through the changes.

“Overall, the department of public safety is dedicated to all of these recommendations,” he said in February. “We don’t want to have that happen again.”

That same month, however, the same officer who mishandled McCluskey’s concerns made similar mistakes on another woman’s domestic violence case. He has been the only one connected to McCluskey’s case to be disciplined since her slaying.

And in June, the department was again criticized when it honored a dispatcher and two school administrators for how they responded to McCluskey’s concerns before her death and how they dealt with questions after it.

McCluskey’s parents said the award ceremony “borders on obscene.” The department later apologized for including McCluskey’s name in the program. But, her parents say, they never apologized for the missteps that led to her death.

Since then, some faculty and community members have called for changes in leadership both at the police department and of the university.

The McCluskeys’ lawsuit alleges that the campus police department has struggled with a culture of treating female officers and victims poorly for years. One officer told the family’s lawyers that her male coworkers would pee in her work bag. Another said that the male officers there refused to believe a woman who reported that she was raped.

The filing also says that officers had McCluskey fill out her first witness statement in the lobby of the department and “rushed Lauren to finish up, telling her that they were only concerned about the extortion and that she could just leave everything else about the stalking, harassment domestic violence and dating violence out of the statement.”

And when McCluskey’s friends told housing officials that they were worried about Rowland bringing a gun to campus, the staff never passed the information on to police because of a general feeling that they “were often unhelpful and their tactics were routinely counterproductive.”

Those pointed to deeper issues within the department that some felt — including a professor who wrote a recent commentary published in The Salt Lake Tribune — can’t be fixed by those currently in charge.

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.

That force oversees a campus of more than 33,000 students.

“The Department of Public Safety staff is here to help make your time on campus pleasant,” Brophy wrote in a “message from the chief” posted on the police department’s website that noted he got a master’s degree of public administration at the U. in 2003. “We endeavor to do all that is possible to build an environment that promotes a feeling of safety and security.”

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