University of Utah president responds to questions about Lauren McCluskey’s murder

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Ruth Watkins speaks to the academic senate at the University of Utah, in the Moot Courtroom, at the University of Utah, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019.

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins took questions Monday from faculty and students for the first time publicly since Lauren McCluskey was killed on campus nearly a year ago — though she declined to get into the specifics about police discipline.

The U.’s police department has largely been the focus of criticism following the murder of McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete who tried to report that she was being harassed but got little response from officers on the force. An independent review said the department did not have sufficient training or policies to effectively handle certain cases, particularly those involving threats against women.

Watkins faced pushback on that after delivering a 10-minute address on campus safety to the school’s academic senate a week after school started. She reiterated that no individual officers would be punished for how they had handled McCluskey’s concerns. But, she said, officers within the department who make mistakes going forward under the new “zero tolerance” policy will be disciplined.

“Absolutely, what you heard is the truth,” she said. “We are holding everyone accountable.”

Accordingly, one officer — Miguel Deras — has received a written warning and one detective — Kayla Dallof — has been fired. Both mishandled McCluskey’s concerns. And both repeated their mistakes in subsequent domestic violence cases.

Devon Cantwell, a student senator, challenged that response, though, suggesting the discipline may have been uneven.

“I’d like to hear why Officer Deras has been retained,” Cantwell said, “and why his failure to act properly in the second case has not prompted termination” like it did with Dallof.

Several professors in the auditorium nodded their heads in agreement. But Watkins responded that she would not answer the question in a public setting.

“Of course, this is not at all an appropriate forum for me to talk about individual personnel cases and some of the nuances of what was different between case A and case B,” she said.

She then added: “Before, we did not have systems and processes in place. We now have systems and processes in place and individuals are being held accountable.”

The Salt Lake Tribune asked the same question last week, too, and the university spokesman also declined to respond.

After taking the weekend off and not responding to McCluskey’s fears until after the student had been murdered, Dallof was assigned another case in February concerning death threats reported by a 17-year-old girl.

The girl, who was not a student at the U., went to the police station to say that a male student she had been dating trapped her in his dorm room and wouldn’t let her out. That student also screamed in a voicemail that he would kill her. And Dallof similarly left for the weekend without taking action involving the student — suggesting to her supervisor that immediate intervention was unnecessary because the suspect didn’t have a car.

The detective was fired shortly after. She appealed, but the decision was later upheld. The Tribune received Dallof’s termination letter and other documents last week when the decision was final.

Similarly, Officer Deras made mistakes again on another woman’s case after failing to respond to McCluskey. In February, he 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.

Additionally, 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. Deras accepted the warning without appeal, and it was placed in his file. It’s unclear why he remains with the department and Dallof was fired.

Regardless, Watkins’ presentation was kept on a tight time schedule and only two members of the audience were allowed to ask questions — though two more jumped in anyway. One faculty member asked about increased lighting on campus and how his students can report where additional fixtures are needed.

The president directed him to Facilities Management or his department chair — “I think either method would work just fine” — before another individual in the audience directed him to safeu.utah.edu, a new website the university has rolled out focused on campus safety and listing resources. Watkins added that 144 new lights were added last year and 11 have been installed so far this year.

The president spent most of her speech listing the university-wide improvements announced earlier this month as part of the “Safety is A Culture” campaign launched before school started. Those include improving building alarms, having police patrol outside of night classes and hiring a chief security officer to be the point person for all of campus safety (including overseeing the chief of police).

She also highlighted a new service called SafeRide where students and staff can request free rides on campus at night — such as to the dorms or a parking lot.

Jim Winkler, a dentistry professor, said he’s heard concerns from graduate students that the app doesn’t cover Research Park. Watkins said she would look into that. Another student senator, Rebecca Hardenbrook, also questioned why the service is for vans and not buses. Watkins said it was more efficient.

“This is very much a work in progress pilot effort,” the president added.

Additionally, Watkins announced that she has formed a research group including 30 faculty members with expertise in domestic violence to generally study the topic. “It’s a very important thing for a research university to do,” she said.

McCluskey had reported to campus police several times in the weeks before her death that she was being harassed and extorted by a man she had briefly dated. She ended her relationship with Melvin S. Rowland on 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, died by suicide hours after killing her on Oct. 22.

Neither Dallof nor Deras ever 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.

The detective also never talked to McCluskey in person and never connected McCluskey to the university’s two victim advocates. On the day she died, McCluskey attempted to contact Dallof, but she didn’t hear back. And though she reached Deras, the officer never relayed her concerns.

In July, police Chief Dale Brophy announced he will retire effective Oct. 15. The spokesman there also resigned. And McCluskey’s parents have filed a $56 million lawsuit against the school.

Watkins said Monday that with everything that happened, safety will be a large focus for the university this year.

“Your safety matters,” she told the academic senate. “The safety of our students matters. This is a very important part of our work.”