University of Utah announces new police chief

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Pictured is Rodney Chatman.

The University of Utah has named a veteran law enforcement leader from Ohio to be its new police chief — tasked with transforming the campus department marred by how officers mishandled repeated reports from student-athlete Lauren McCluskey before she was killed.

The appointment has been the most anticipated action in the U.’s wide-scale efforts to improve safety since the October 2018 killing gained national attention, and after former Chief Dale Brophy retired a year later amid ongoing turmoil. In its wake, students, particularly women, have questioned whether their concerns are taken seriously.

The new chief — Rodney Chatman of the University of Dayton — will largely be responsible for rebuilding confidence in the force.

“My ultimate goal as chief is to build trust between the police and the community,” he said in a statement released by the U. on Thursday. “Students need to know that the police chief wants to hear their voice and wants to begin the process of healing from past and present hurts.”

Chatman will start his new job on Feb. 17.

The announcement comes shortly after the U. also hired Marlon Lynch as its first-ever chief safety officer. That is a Cabinet-level position created to coordinate all aspects of campus security, including emergency preparedness, cyberattacks and laboratory hazards — as well as oversee the police chief.

The new leadership structure is meant to improve accountability, overall, after an independent review team found the U.’s police department brushed off McCluskey’s multiple calls in the weeks before her death. The 21-year-old track star was killed outside her dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a man she had briefly dated and tried to warn campus police about. He later died by suicide.

Following that, more students and staff have come forward to share their stories of also being ignored or mistreated when reporting crimes on campus, including cases of rape, stalking, sexual harassment and dating violence. And many say they’re wary of asking the campus department for help.

On Thursday, though, U. President Ruth Watkins commented in the university’s news release that Chatman is “the ideal candidate to lead and guide change in our Department of Public Safety.”

She wrote: “[He] is an experienced law enforcement leader who has a deep understanding of campus policing. … Rodney is particularly recognized for effectiveness in building partnerships with students to enhance safety.”

Chatman was selected out of 50 applicants and will replace Brophy, the former chief, who stepped down from the post in October. He will be faced with supervising a department accused of misconduct, stacked with officers with messy discipline records and the target of recent student protests.

Hundreds held a walkout on campus late last fall. And one group started an Instagram account called “Unsafe U,” where students and others have continued to share their negative experiences as a response to the university’s “Safe U” campaign after McCluskey’s slaying.

Devon Cantwell, a graduate student and member of Unsafe U, said Thursday that she’s encouraged by Chatman’s previous work in policing and her team plans to set up a meeting with him when he arrives on campus.

“He might not have a total understanding to what degree trust has been broken at the University of Utah,” she said. “We want to meet with him early to talk to him about how deep these problems are and how much damage there is to repair. But if everything he says is implemented, we’re hopeful about his leadership.”

Unsafe U has asked for a committee of students to advise the police department and review its actions. During his visit to the U. last month as part of the hiring process, Chatman talked about how he’d started something similar while police chief at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

“We need to be transparent with everything,” he said, responding to a question from a student in the audience. “We need to be trying to get better each and every day.”

Chatman ran a training program at the school where students could learn some of the basics of policing. He believes that approach bridges the divide between officers and students. He also formed a community advisory panel that came in every six weeks to bring concerns and hear about issues impacting the department. He called it “ripping the veil off.”

Cantwell said it’s a needed approach at the U. And she also appreciates the chief’s plans to create training modules for all officers to complete on dealing with mental health interventions and responding to cases involving domestic violence.

“He seems committed,” she added. “We want to see a public discussion of what his strategy is.”

One concern with the police chief hire, though, is that, along with the chief safety officer position, there is no woman leading policing efforts on campus — despite there being female finalists for both posts. Cantwell wishes there was going to be a female voice working on the university’s reforms — since many of the concerns with the department are about ignoring female students — and hopes Chatman will hire more women as officers on the force, as well as people of color.

Jill McCluskey, Lauren McCluskey’s mother, had the same worry.

She wrote in an email: “We hope that Mr. Chatman vigorously addresses the need to transform the climate in the campus police department from the complacency that contributed to my daughter’s murder to full and urgent engagement of women in need, especially those at risk for relationship violence. We also expect for the University of Utah to provide a clear explanation of the selection criteria that resulted in not selecting the female candidate when there have been serious problems in how women are treated by the campus police.”

Currently, of the 40 officers at the U., four are women.

Jill McCluskey added, “Studies have shown that increases in female officer shares are followed by significant reductions in rates of intimate partner homicide and non-fatal domestic violence.”

The University of Utah is being sued by McCluskey’s parents, who believe the police force could have done more to protect their daughter.

Before starting at the U., Chatman will step down as police chief at Dayton, where he has spent the past three years. During his career, he has worked 30 years in law enforcement — half at city departments and half on campus.

The University of Dayton is much smaller than the University of Utah — with about 11,000 students to the U.’s 33,000. Despite that difference, Chatman said he has responded to large incidents, including a KKK rally close to campus, that have prepared him for a bigger job.

Also, in August of this year, a gunman killed nine people and injured 27 in a mass shooting two miles from campus. Chatman and his force were some of the first officers on the scene. And the student newspaper, Flyer News, applauded him for making law enforcement more visible at the university in response.

Students there were frustrated, though, by how his officers responded to a St. Patrick’s Day parade that turned into a riot with people throwing glass bottles and yelling at police in 2016.

Chatman previously worked at the University of Cincinnati, too, as a police captain. While there, one of his officers shot and killed an unarmed black man while conducting an off-campus traffic stop. The department overhauled its police policies and started doing random body camera reviews. But many in the community protested, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, saying the bias was never addressed.

He also worked in Ohio’s municipal police departments in Silverton and St. Bernard.

At the U., Chatman has proposed making sure the police department is transparent in reporting the number of crimes on campus and keeping students informed. He particularly wants to engage with those at the university to know what the needs are, what the issues are and how to rebuild trust after McCluskey’s slaying.

He said: “It will be vital to hear specific concerns and understand what success looks like from their perspective.”