As survey says students still don’t trust its officers, University of Utah announces overhaul of police department

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The University of Utah police department pictured on Wed., June 5, 2019.

The University of Utah will overhaul its troubled police department — requiring more public reporting of misconduct, hiring a new command staff to oversee officers and devoting a division to victim services with a special focus on sexual violence.

The massive reorganization was announced Monday by the U.‘s new chief safety officer, who started in February and whose first task has been to fix the system there. It’s part of a continued effort by the university to rebuild trust after campus police mishandled student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s repeated calls for help before she was murdered outside her dorm.

It’s been more than a year and a half since her October 2018 death, but the department is under renewed investigation by the state with the new disclosure that an officer shared intimate evidence photos of McCluskey with a coworker. And it comes as protesters nationwide are calling for police reform due to discrimination toward people of color. Students at the U. held their own rally on campus this month calling for the department there to be defunded altogether.

“This is timely,” said Marlon Lynch, the school’s chief safety officer, about the restructuring. “I think it’s definitely appropriate.”

The new organization — all to be housed now under the U.‘s Department of Public Safety — will serve many of the same functions as before. But the biggest difference is that those functions will be separated out into their own divisions and some will be led by new leaders, all reporting directly to Lynch.

There will be five main divisions: police, community services (focused on victims), emergency management, security for main campus and security for the university’s hospital.

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Pictured is the new organizational chart for the U.'s Department of Public Safety, including police and security.

Previously, for instance, all security officers and police officers were in the police department. That was about 180 people reporting to the police chief — even though the two jobs have different functions. Police officers are sworn and can make arrests, for instance; security officers are unarmed and generally respond to less serious situations.

Now security will be split into two, with one force patrolling main campus and one watching over the U.‘s health system and facilities. Lynch said that’s because the “skill set varies” based on those locations. Main campus includes typical job duties, such as securing the dorms and helping students to their cars. The hospitals are more visitor-focused.

And, separately, now the police chief will have only about 40 regular officers under his command, with the hope that he can better track the serious cases that they’re handling.

Rodney Chatman, who is also new to the position, is leading that police force. And he faces a unique challenge in rebuilding faith in the department.

According to a new campus climate survey released by the U. last week, students’ trust in officers is down significantly — likely a response to McCluskey’s death, at least in part. When the survey was previously conducted in spring 2018, before her murder, a majority of students said they felt the university does enough to protect students.

With the same question asked this year, less than half did.

There were similar drops when students were asked if they felt the U. would respond well to a crisis or if the school would take a report of sexual misconduct seriously. And, overall, perceptions of safety on campus declined.

At the same time, fewer students reported having experienced harassment or assault. In 2018, 19% of students said they’d been sexually assaulted. This year, it was 13%. Harassment fell from 36% to 31%.

It’s possible that less misconduct is happening. But it could also be that fewer students feel comfortable reporting their experiences — especially given the concern with how campus officials would handle cases.

Lynch, along with Lori McDonald, the U.‘s vice president of student affairs, said they’re concerned with what students are feeling. Lynch has taken those survey responses — with about 14% of those on campus self-selecting to respond to the poll — and discussions with student groups into account as he’s looked to reorganize policing.

“I most definitely want to rebuild the perception of safety,” he added.

As part of that, he’s specifically created the division of community services for public safety, which will be focused on working with victims of all crimes but particularly sexual violence. Jamie Justice, who was recently hired to be the victim advocate in the U.‘s police department, will take over as director of the unit. It will no longer be under the supervision of the police department, though there will still be an advocate on staff there, too.

One of the biggest flaws in handling McCluskey’s concerns, according to an independent team that later reviewed the case, was that she was never referred to a victim advocate who could have helped her. In fact, officers missed several signs that she was experiencing interpersonal violence and at risk of escalating harm. She was later killed by the man, Melvin S. Rowland, whom she had just broken up with and whom she was trying to report for extorting and harassing her; he later died by suicide.

Justice, who has a decade of experience working with victims, will lead trainings on campus to help staff recognize the warning signs. She also will continue responding to police calls in a partnership with the police division. But students can come directly to her to report an incident.

“Safety and security is about more than police,” Lynch said. “There are other needs, as well.”

Along with that perspective — which comes partially in response to the police protests across the country — Lynch has expanded the emergency management division as part of public safety. Currently, that group is monitoring the coronavirus and the response on campus. But they’ll also respond to natural hazards.

Additionally, the dispatch call center for all of the divisions will be housed there. And staff will be able to send the appropriate personnel to respond to any situation.

Not every incident, Lynch added, needs an officer with a gun.

All of the divisions will be expected to coordinate, “share resources and share information,” Lynch said, so that nothing falls through the cracks — and so there’s a record of students who first call security and later police, like McCluskey did. Most will have new leadership. That comes as many at the top have left the police department, including the previous chief, Dale Brophy, and more recently the No. 2 in command, Rick McLenon, amid the turmoil over McCluskey’s case. New sergeants and lieutenants are being hired to oversee officers.

Lynch will have his own staff, too, to help him organize the operation, as well as other safety efforts on campus. And he landed a recognized law enforcement veteran for that effort. Keith Squires, who previously served as the commissioner for the state’s Department of Public Safety before he retired and who helped lead the independent review of McCluskey’s case, will serve as his executive officer.

Squires’ job will include launching and supporting a committee of faculty and students to oversee the police department at the U. and another group that will be responsible for reviewing future cases of misconduct, including violations of policy or use of deadly force by officers, when they arise. Lynch said he wants the handling of those cases to be transparent and reported publicly for accountability.

“I think what this structure does is show a multi-prong approach to public safety,” Lynch said Monday.

The changes will begin immediately and will continue to be put in place into the fall, when the U. expects to break ground on a new $13 million safety and security building.

The restructuring and re-envisioning of the department is the most far-reaching of the university’s responses to McCluskey’s death, though the school has also worked to provide more training for officers on domestic violence, installed more lights on campus and consolidated night classes for safety.

It still faces two lawsuits, though, filed by McCluskey’s parents, in both the state and federal court, saying the school could have done more to prevent their daughter’s death. The U. has denied that.