University of Utah police officers will no longer say these 3 things to victims

Interim Police Chief Jason Hinojosa said it’s part of continuing reform since the death of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey in 2018.

Jason Hinojosa started to feel concerned as he was doing routine reviews of body camera footage his officers had recorded during their shifts.

Hinojosa, the interim police chief at the University of Utah, noticed a pattern in the questions his staff were asking the mostly young students reporting crimes. They were the same questions or comments Hinojosa said he relied on, too, when he was an officer years ago.

But as he reflected on them, he realized they sounded irrelevant at best. At worst, he feared, they were antagonistic and might deter victims from speaking out.

“I hate that it took me so long to realize this,” he said.

For the past few months, Hinojosa has been working to reform the campus police department that had been the focus of intense scrutiny in the fallout from the 2018 murder of Lauren McCluskey. The case revealed serious missteps in how officers responded to McCluskey’s concerns, reported before she was killed on campus by a man she briefly dated. That included one officer sharing intimate photos that McCluskey had provided as evidence she was being extorted.

In the aftermath, several women also came forward to describe a department steeped in sexism that affected both how female victims and female staffers were treated for years.

(Photo courtesy of Jill McCluskey) In this undated photo, Lauren McCluskey makes the "U" with her hands.

Since then, the campus force has been overhauled and is now composed of 94% employees new to the department (an effort that has also included hiring more women and officers of color to be representative of the community they serve). And Hinojosa said he continues to look for ways to improve.

“We know that tragedy [with McCluskey] was the catalyst for a lot of this change,” he said.

That includes reviewing video of how his officers respond to crimes — with body camera use required for all interactions beginning in September 2021. He wants every interaction with a victim to be affirming.

That’s why he decided his officers should stop saying these three things:

1. “There is nothing we can do.”

This is the same phrase that the police report from McCluskey’s case notes that officers told her when she first reported to the campus police department.

She told the officer she was being harassed by a man she dated and later broke up with when she found out he was lying about his name, age and criminal history.

Hinojosa said the phrase is not true. Even if there isn’t a direct police service that applies to a situation, he said, officers can direct victims to more resources.

Particularly on campus, he said, there is counseling and victim advocates. The department’s failure to connect McCluskey with a victim advocate was one of mistakes cited in a later independent review.

“We never want someone to not seek our help because they think we have nothing to offer them,” Hinojosa wrote in a recent letter to the campus community. “The bottom line is if the police cannot help, we can at least help in finding the support or resources that can.”

That’s a unique part of being at a university, he said. There are so many other avenues where victims can find support. And it helps, too, he said, when most of those reporting crimes are young adults who largely haven’t lived on their own before coming to college. They might not know when to report to police, what to report to police or the resources they have access to, Hinojosa added.

His department can help direct them, if nothing else.

2. “Why did you wait to report this crime?”

Hinojosa said this question is generally asked by officers trying to better understand the situation — not intentionally to be judgmental. But it has long been criticized by advocates.

The interim police chief decided to direct officers at the U. to stop asking it when he noticed how victims in the body camera footage were reacting to the question. They often tensed up or shut down, no longer wanting to participate in reporting a crime. Seeing that was powerful, he said.

The question insinuates that a victim did something wrong in coming to police by not reporting sooner, Hinojosa added. But often victims — especially those who have been sexually assaulted — experience trauma or shock after a crime. They may feel scared or uncomfortable reporting to police, Hinojosa acknowledged.

To then be questioned on why they waited to report, the interim police chief said, makes it worse.

“I think that sets the wrong tone,” he said. “It doesn’t matter why they waited. They’re making a report now. And we want to avoid adding to anyone’s anxiety with calling the police.”

He said he asked the question when he was a patrol officer 24 years ago. “That’s out of my own ignorance,” he said, saying they can do better now.

3. “What do you want me to do?”

Hinojosa said this question is meant to be genuine and empower victims, but watching the footage from his officers he felt it came across as negative.

Instead of asking this, he now is coaching his officers to be more open with victims in explaining their options and helping them navigate what will work best for them.

Hinojosa said this is another one that felt obvious — and frustrating that he didn’t act on it sooner. Victim advocates already take this approach, he said. It’s more trauma-informed.

“Yes, the students here are adults, but they’re inexperienced,” he said.

In his letter to campus, Hinojosa added: “If a person in need knew how to handle a situation they wouldn’t be asking for help.”

It is more supportive, he said, for officers to walk through the process than expect them to know what to do when reporting a crime. For some victims, he said, letting officers know something happened is all they want. And that helps officers, too, have information that might be helpful down the road, for example, with a repeat perpetrator.

Continuing improvement

Hinojosa said all of the officers in the department have been told about the new directive. But it will take some time for the change to be fully implemented, particularly with officers who have long been asking those questions.

But, he said: If you ever interact with one of our officers and they utilize any of the phrases above, I hope you’ll contact me.” His email is Jason.Hinojosa@utah.edu.

His officers will also be trained in a three-day session in December on active listening, another effort he hopes will make victims feel more comfortable in coming to the department to report crimes. That comes in addition to training on how to best respond to reports of interpersonal violence, and a list of other changes since McCluskey’s death that were recommended by the independent panel.

The department continues to struggle with some of the same issues that contributed to mishandling McCluskey’s concerns, according to a state audit released earlier this year.

While the chief said the force has increased its technical capabilities to investigate crimes in response — and it will celebrate next week the opening of a new building with state-of-the-art equipment — it needs to look at every aspect of policing for possible reforms.

And interactions with victims, he said, are the most crucial.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah interim Police Chief Jason Hinojosa talks with executive assistant Rachel Caplan at the University of Utah Public Safety Building, Oct. 26, 2022. The facility includes a dispatch call center, a conference room, a processing area and holding cells and storage for evidence. It will also include a private room for interviews and victim advocacy work.