University of Utah approves new $13 million building for its police department

The University of Utah has approved plans to build a new $13 million facility for its campus police department — a move that comes after concerns that some students, including slain track star Lauren McCluskey, have been forced to discuss sensitive crimes in the current building’s lobby and others have been wary to report there at all.

“It’s just so apparent that this is needed,” said Marlon Lynch, the newly appointed chief safety officer at the U. “I could see that it was difficult for people to come in. And we want to make it open for anyone on campus.”

As part of the project, the U. will demolish the old headquarters, which were used by the Army during World War II, and replace it with parking. It will construct the new building nearby along 500 South in a lot just east of Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The construction is one of the last remaining recommendations left to be completed by the U. after an independent review team investigated how it handled McCluskey’s calls for help before she was murdered in October 2018.

McCluskey, a 21-year-old student-athlete, had reached out to campus police several times, saying that the man she had been dating was stalking and extorting her. She later went to the department to formally report the harassment and was told to fill out a victim statement in the public lobby of the station. Officers interviewed her there, too, asking personal questions about her relationship.

The review team strongly condemned that, calling it inappropriate at best. Police also did little to investigate McCluskey’s concerns. And, days later, she was killed outside her dorm by Melvin S. Rowland. He later died by suicide.

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

Some have said they’ve tried to enter the building but felt it was off-putting and in an odd location.

The independent review team suggested designing a new space with a focus on serving students. And the university hopes that its new police facility will start to change attitudes.

The school’s board of trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the construction plans.

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Pictured is an early rendition of the design for a new public safety building on campus.

“This will allow us to really design the space that we need,” said Robin Burr, the U.’s associate vice president over planning and facilities.

The U. studied whether it would be cheaper or more efficient to renovate the old building, constructed in 1943. But because of its condition — including asbestos in the pipes and lead in the toilets — a consultant determined it would be better to rebuild elsewhere.

“Right now, you have to get a tetanus shot before you go in there,” teased H. David Burton, chairman of the trustees.

Construction on the new building is currently estimated to cost $13.7 million. It will be funded through institutional reserves, meaning the university will not have to ask the Legislature for money.

U. President Ruth Watkins said that was intentional because “it’s a difficult thing to do” to wait for state approval and public funding, which can be a yearslong process. She assured the trustees that lawmakers have pledged to help support other safety measures, but she declined to say what those were.

“This is an action that we want to move on now and need to move on now,” she said.

The facility will be slightly more expensive than other campus construction because of the specific needs of the department, including secure spaces for a dispatch call center and storage for evidence. It will also include a private room for interviews and victim advocacy work, as well as a training space for officers and locked parking.

The public entrance will lead into an open community room — which Lynch said he specifically requested in the design.

“I visited,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure there was an accessible community space up front.”

The trustees expressed some concerns with the relocation, though, because the new building would displace some of the area currently used for tailgating before football games. Burr said the university would determine another space where that could be held instead.

Burton wondered whether it would be difficult for officers to cross 500 South in case of an emergency. The plan includes a cut in the median there, Burr said, and control of the traffic lights.

Additionally, she said, because the new facility is being built in a different location, police work should not be interrupted by the construction. That’s expected to start in October. And the new space is set to open in December 2021.