The University of Utah has named a longtime law enforcement leader from New York to be its first-ever chief safety officer — a Cabinet-level position that will oversee all aspects of security, including emergency preparedness, cyberattacks, laboratory hazards and, perhaps most importantly, campus policing.
The appointment is the biggest action the U. has taken in its wide-scale efforts to improve safety on campus in response to the murder of track star Lauren McCluskey. Since she was killed outside her dorm in October 2018 by a man she tried to warn police about several times, students have become wary of trusting the university’s officers and the school has faced widespread criticism.
The new chief safety officer — Marlon Lynch of New York University — will largely be tasked with rebuilding confidence in the police department before expanding his scope campuswide.
“What’s most important now for those still feeling that way is to encourage them to voice how they feel,” Lynch told The Salt Lake Tribune after the announcement Thursday. “Certainly, my goal is to move forward and learn from what has happened in the past.”
Lynch will start his new job Feb. 1.
The idea for the position came out of a campus safety task force convened by U. President Ruth Watkins after McCluskey’s death. It is separate from the 30 recommendations from an independent review team that found the U.’s police department mishandled McCluskey’s repeated calls for help — though those fixes are also being implemented.
“Marlon brings years of experience, knowledge and insights to this role on our campus,” Watkins said in a prepared statement. “His record of success will accelerate our efforts to strengthen a culture of safety at the U.”
Lynch was selected out of 80 candidates. He will be in charge of directing campus security from environmental threats to reports of harassment to the U.’s Department of Public Safety. Previously, those various elements were disjointed and spread across different leaders.
He will also oversee the chief of police — whom the university will select next. That hire is still in process after former U. Police Chief Dale Brophy announced he would retire in October amid the ongoing allegations of misconduct within the university police department.
After McCluskey’s slaying, students and staff have come forward to share their stories of being ignored or mistreated when reporting crimes on campus and have protested how the school’s officers, specifically, responded to McCluskey. They held a walkout, waved signs outside of a football game and started an Instagram account called “Unsafe U,” where they have been sharing their negative experiences as a response to the university’s “Safe U” campaign.
Devon Cantwell, a graduate student and member of the Unsafe U team, said Thursday that she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the chief safety officer and her group plans to set up a meeting with Lynch when he arrives on campus.
“He’s going to be building the ship as he drives it with this new position,” Cantwell said. “But we find it promising, so far, that he wants to include student voices.”
Unsafe U has asked for a committee of students to advise the police department. And Lynch has promised to start that.
When he spoke at the U. last month as part of the selection process, he talked about how he meets weekly with his officers at NYU in chats open to the public and that focus on how to improve. He intends to do the same in Utah.
“I need to be accessible,” Lynch said. “I need to engage everyone and, more importantly, listen to their expectations and their ideas.”
The position of chief safety officer exists at only a few other schools across the country, but it is slowly becoming a trend on campuses, particularly those that, like the U., have large student bodies, adjoining hospitals and hundreds of visitors daily.
The University of Utah is currently being sued by McCluskey’s parents, who believe the police force could have done more to protect their daughter. They support the hiring of Lynch as the new chief safety officer, though, and believe it will improve security for female students at the U.
“I’ve heard good things about him,” Jill McCluskey wrote in an email. “I hope he makes the campus safer.”
Before starting at the U., Lynch will step down as the senior vice president for campus services and safety at NYU, where he has spent the past three years. His policing career has been built in campus departments nationwide, including Chicago, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas and Michigan.
Lynch said he has studied the McCluskey case. And he proposes talking more often about domestic violence, empowering housing officials to report crimes, training officers to get students temporary restraining orders when they’re being stalked or harassed, and teaching police to recognize warning signs of escalating relationship threats.
He said he would like to create a victims services unit in which “someone is always on call with that, whether it’s 2 a.m. or 2 p.m."
He has faced some pushback in his past jobs. An officer on his squad infiltrated a student protest at the University of Chicago in 2013 dressed in plainclothes and carrying a poster, according to a report in the Chicago Maroon. Lynch, among others, was sued after firing the commanding sergeant who ordered the infiltration. That sergeant’s lawsuit described the campus department as a “good old boys’ club" and a jury later found him wrongfully terminated.
Also in Chicago, Lynch’s police force clashed with demonstrators outside a new hospital building. Four were arrested, and some complained of being racially profiled and physically abused.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Lynch said he also mistrusted officers, and that’s why he decided to become one. He believes he can speak to people with similar concerns. He wants the university’s force to hire more women and people of color as a first step to working with marginalized groups.
Lynch said he’s learned a lot over his 27-year career in law enforcement and wants to keep improving. With this new position, he said, “there are definitely high expectations and rightfully so.”
He added: “It can’t all be done overnight. And it won’t be done alone. It will be a collaborative effort.”