The University of Utah’s new chief safety officer is changing how campus police handle sensitive evidence and will create a committee of students and faculty to review any misconduct by the force — moves that come, at least in part, in response to an officer who displayed an explicit photo of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey before she was killed.
Marlon Lynch, who began leading safety efforts at the U. earlier this year, detailed his plans during the state Legislature’s education interim committee meeting Monday. Several committee members have said they’re concerned about how the department treats victims after a recent report from The Salt Lake Tribune disclosed the officer’s behavior in McCluskey’s case.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Lynch acknowledged.
Officer Miguel Deras had been assigned to investigate McCluskey’s concerns in October 2018 when she first reported to campus police 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.
Two other officers have since said that Deras saved those images on his personal phone, showing at least one off to a male coworker. The U. has confirmed that display occurred and called it “unnecessary.”
The school did its own internal review of the situation last year — after Deras had already left the department. It has since called for another outside investigation to be done by the Utah Department of Public Safety. That is expected to be wrapped up this week.
Logan police, where Deras now works, is also conducting its own review.
Lynch said the university hasn’t just waited for those to be completed, though.
Already, he has worked to revamp the policies for how his officers deal with evidence, particularly photos. Any pictures that an officer receives on their cellphone as evidence must be entered “unaltered,” Lynch stressed, into the department’s evidence database by the end of the individual’s shift. And then they need to be deleted off of the personal device.
Deras’ attorneys have since countered that Deras was trying to figure out how to upload the photo when he showed it off. Lynch said if an officer doesn’t know how to attach a picture to a case file, he should talk directly to a supervisor.
Lynch described those changes Monday as “checks and balances to go into the evidentiary process to address issues that may have occurred in the past.”
He also pledged to create two public committees to provide oversight. One will review future cases of misconduct, including violations of policy or use of deadly force by officers, when they arise. The other — with 10 members, half students and half faculty — will meet more frequently to discuss new initiatives proposed by campus police and weigh in on policy changes, training requirements and diversity.
“This is a direct opportunity for our community to have a direct impact on how public safety operates,” Lynch said.
In addition to those larger changes, the chief safety officer wants to create a community services branch that would provide advocates for victims of any crime. And he intends to make sure that students who aren’t comfortable specifically reporting sexual assaults to police know the other options on campus “outside of public safety.”
His officers, he said, receive “only entry-level training” to handle domestic violence and assault. The intent is to refer victims to others “with a true expertise,” not always to handle the case themselves.
“I’m looking forward to getting things going,” Lynch added.
The legislative committee said Monday the efforts are a good start to addressing the concerns.
“I believe that we’re making progress,” said Committee Chairman Lowry Snow, R-St. George. “But since Lauren McCluskey was killed, we have to do a better job. It makes a difference when a victim feels alone or there’s no one they can go to.”
McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was killed Oct. 22, 2018, outside her dorm by the man who had been blackmailing her over the photos, Melvin S. Rowland. She had briefly dated him and called campus officers to report him several times after they broke up. But they did little to look into her concerns, an independent report later found, before her murder. Rowland later died by suicide.
“Sometimes that first call is just the tip of the iceberg,” added Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights.
Relationship violence can quickly escalate, and she wants universities across the state to be prepared. The commissioner for the Utah System of Higher Education was also at the meeting and laid out a plan for getting all of the state’s eight public colleges on the same page for policing and handling evidence.