The University of Utah announced Monday that it will arrange for a deeper independent investigation into the actions of a former officer there who the school has confirmed saved and displayed at least one intimate photo of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey before she was killed.
The outside review ordered by the department’s new police chief comes after a report in The Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday disclosed the conduct of Officer Miguel Deras, who was assigned to investigate McCluskey’s extortion case in October 2018.
“After personally reviewing the report today and consulting with the university’s chief safety officer, I have ordered a new investigation to be completed by an outside agency,” said Chief Rodney Chatman in a statement. “This is due to the seriousness of the accusation, concerns I have with the thoroughness of the report, and my desire to avoid any perception of bias.”
U. spokesman Chris Nelson clarified that Chatman was referring to the thoroughness of the report generated by the university’s initial investigation, which the U. declined Monday night to release. The U. disputes that Deras bragged about having the images, though on Monday it didn’t deny he displayed them. The U. has previously told The Tribune, too, that the display was not for the purpose of work.
“Did he have the image on his phone? Yes,” Nelson said. “Did he display it? Yes.”
Before the chief’s decision late Monday, a bipartisan group of state leaders had expressed outrage about the officer’s behavior, drafting several bills related to such conduct and saying they would take action if the U. didn’t. State Auditor John Dougall called for the university to disband its police department.
“If President [Ruth] Watkins is unable or unwilling to take meaningful corrective action, I think it is time for her to resign and be replaced,” he said.
Now the U. says it will look again into the behavior first brought to its attention by The Tribune last year during a public records request. The school previously said that an internal review had confirmed that Deras displayed the photo of McCluskey to another male officer. The Tribune also spoke to a third officer, who overheard the conversation, and said that Deras “boasted” about it.
McCluskey had initially reported that someone was threatening to release compromising photos she had taken of herself if she didn’t hand over $1,000. Scared by the demand, she paid the money and then sent copies of the messages and the pictures to Deras as evidence for her case. He opened the photos on his personal phone, the U. has confirmed.
No one reported the incident at the time, and Deras was not disciplined for it. He left the department to work for Logan police in September 2019, which was before the university says it confirmed the action. The officer to whom he showed the photos substantiated the account to U. investigators sometime later, the U. has said.
The U. claims it doesn’t have any physical evidence of Deras’ behavior. Its investigation into the conduct included a July 2019 download of the files on the officer’s phone. But Deras had gotten a new phone before that and most of what was retrieved in the process was corrupted, the U. said.
Despite several records requests, The Tribune was told there were no documents or reports created. Now Nelson said there is a report, but because it included no conclusions, the U. does not plan to release it. The Tribune intends to appeal that decision.
“An internal investigation into this case by the University of Utah Police Department was initiated following allegations brought to the university by a Tribune reporter last year,” Chatman added in his statement. “The report, which was completed prior to my joining the department as chief, found that a photo was shared in the context of a shift-change briefing.”
The new, outside review of Deras’ conduct will be released in its entirety when it is completed, the school said. Nelson anticipates that will be done in the next three to four weeks.
In the meantime, two individuals in the department who conducted the initial review of Deras’ behavior will be put on administrative leave during the new investigation. Nelson declined to identify them. But Chatman said that work was not thorough and the allegations raise a possible “serious breach of trust and a violation of professional law enforcement standards.”
The outside investigation will include interviews with current and former staff, Chatman added. That will include the officer to whom Deras showed the photo, who was not disciplined because he did not solicit looking the pictures, the U. has said.
“It is inexcusable for a police officer to inappropriately share or discuss photos or information provided by a victim seeking justice,” Chatman said. “… I know this announcement will come as a disappointment to many in the community. Statements by the university over the past 24 hours have leaned heavily on the results of the first internal review. However, if my police department is to regain credibility in the eyes of the community it serves this new review must be completed swiftly and with respect for both the students we serve and for Lauren McCluskey and her family."
The conduct happened sometime before McCluskey, 21, was killed on Oct. 22, 2018, outside her dorm by the man who had been blackmailing her over the photos, Melvin S. Rowland. McCluskey had briefly dated him and tried to warn campus officers about him several times after they broke up. But they did little to look into her concerns, an independent report later found, and Rowland later died by suicide.
Lawmakers promise reform
State lawmakers say they’re now working to make it clear that the conduct at the center of the investigation is a crime. A legislative committee is planning to audit all practices at the U. for responding to victims. And two lawmakers have proposed revoking the certification for any officer putting private evidence on his personal phone.
“This just cannot happen,” said Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray. “We want to protect our victims. They should not be revictimized, especially by these people they should be able to trust.”
Kwan is drafting a priority bill with Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, a prosecutor and longtime victim advocate, that would make it against the law for officers to download images used for evidence on a personal device, as well as to share any photos of a victim with someone not involved in the investigation.
The legislation, as Stoddard imagines it now, would require training for officers on how to properly handle sensitive evidence, especially with new technologies and social media. And if an officer were convicted of the violation he or she could have their police certification revoked.
“Hopefully this is the first step of many,” Stoddard said, noting he hopes the proposal will be ready for the 2021 legislative session if not sooner. He has previously sponsored a bill nicknamed Lauren’s Law, also motivated by McCluskey’s case, meant to hold gun owners responsible for what people do with firearms they loan. That, though, has been held in committee and not yet passed.
He has higher hopes for this measure and says it’s a critical time to reexamine how officers are reprimanded for misconduct in light of the new report on McCluskey. Like Dougall, he also believes disbanding the U.’s force should be on the table.
“Campus police departments have had so many issues lately, the U., BYU, Utah State,” he noted. “I just think universities are well-equipped to do so many things. But maybe campus policing isn’t one of them.”
Brigham Young University began an overhaul of its handling of sexual assault reports in 2016, after The Tribune reported that victims said they faced punishment under its Honor Code. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice said Utah State University had repeatedly mishandled cases of sexual assault on campus.
Closing the U.'s department would likely mean another agency, such as Salt Lake City police or Utah Highway Patrol, would oversee the campus. Dougall, a Republican elected to run the state auditor’s office, said he prefers that. “The university appears to place a higher priority on parking enforcement than the safety of its students,” he added.
The U.’s spokesman said Monday that he didn’t have an immediate response to that or Dougall’s statement about Watkins. Chatman, though, argued it’s crucial to have a campus police department because of the size of the university.
In addition to the bill disciplining officers for downloading or sharing images of victims, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, wants to strengthen the existing law on what’s called “revenge porn.”
Under that law, sharing or displaying a compromising photo of someone without the person’s consent can be prosecuted. And the first offense can result in a misdemeanor charge.
Maj. Scott Stephenson, who leads the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) council, which oversees certifying officers, has previously said that law was the most likely to apply to Deras’ conduct — though the U. never reported the incident to POST.
Hall said Monday that he’d like to make sure law enforcement are specifically listed in the statute and lay out their obligations to protect sensitive photos sent in as evidence. He sponsored the original legislation in 2014.
“In revising the revenge porn bill, I am looking at a possible penalty increase, along with a making sure the conduct alleged can be prosecuted even if the victim dies before knowing that such distribution of intimate images occurred,” Hall added, such as in McCluskey’s case.
The leaders over the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee have also promised to investigate the U.’s protocols for responding to victims and maintaining privacy. The school has said that since finding out about Deras’ conduct, it’s offered more training for officers.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, who co-leads the committee, said she still wants to look at the policies in place. “It’s alarming,” she said Monday. “And what we need to find out is if this is a one-off incident or if there are broader implications that need to be addressed.”
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, the other co-chair, said he believes the information on the officer sharing McCluskey’s photos will chill other individuals from coming forward to the campus department to report crimes. He said an audit may be able to restore some trust.
But overall, he noted, the institution needs to show victims that their evidence will be handled with sensitivity and care. “Right now, if I had a daughter that was considering going there, I would have some reservations,” Snow added.
The McCluskeys respond
McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt, said Monday that the new disclosure about Deras’ conduct has reopened their wounds. They have long maintained that the officers on campus took little action to address their daughter’s concerns. And an independent review concluded the same.
“Now it turns out that the only thing that Officer Deras did was download the photos that Lauren provided as evidence to his personal phone to use for his own enjoyment,” Jill McCluskey said during a news conference held over video. “The person who was supposed to provide police services to Lauren instead exploited her. I wish he had used his time to arrest Lauren’s killer rather than ogling at her image.”
Matt McCluskey, also joining in from their home in Pullman, Wash., urged the university to take responsibility.
The family has filed a federal lawsuit against the U., alleging that it could have prevented McCluskey’s murder. They are scheduled to discuss a possible mediation of the case with the U. on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The McCluskeys’ attorneys say that the information on Deras, though, fundamentally changes the case.
“The focus now also shifts to a university who has an employee who has himself exploited the victim,” said Jim McConkie, who is representing the parents.
The university said Monday that it has since changed its policies, particularly with how victims transfer sensitive information to officers. Now they have a secure process where files are never hosted on an officer’s cell phone, Chatman said.
“Given the fact that I was chief of police at the University of Dayton when Lauren was murdered, my ability to speak to past actions at the University of Utah is limited …,” he said. “I recognize this will take time, but I want to assure the campus community that when the calls come, my officers will respond.
In addition to the U.’s investigation, the Logan Police Department, where Deras currently works, has said it will also conduct its own review. In a letter from Chief Gary Jensen posted Monday, he acknowledged: “We are taking the allegations seriously and investigating the claims, while ensuring due process is also being served. If there is evidence substantiating the allegations, we will take appropriate action.”
When reached by The Tribune by phone, he said he hasn’t decided yet whether to put Deras on leave during the investigation, adding, “Everyone’s out there impugning him."