Utah universities should think about getting out of the policing business, the Editorial Board writes

Legislative audit reveals a long list of shortcomings in public safety on college campuses.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police cars sit in the parking lot of the University of Utah police department. The staff there gave out three awards on Wed., June 5, 2019 for how school employees handled Lauren McCluskey's case last fall.

It would not be the first time that someone on a college campus took a hard look at all the things they were doing and decided that it was just too much.

That they need to get more sleep. Get more exercise. Go to fewer parties. Drop one class. Change their major. Transfer to a different college. Join the Army. Any of a number of things that would allow them to focus on, and succeed at, what’s most important to them.

As it is for students, sometimes it is for university administrators, too. And for those who run public universities in Utah, one question worth a hard look is whether running a police department is really something that ought to be in a university’s portfolio.

A new audit of police and public safety issues on Utah’s public college campuses suggests that, three years after the extortion and murder of a University of Utah student drew national attention to gaps in the safety net students and staff should expect from such institutions, there is still much in the way of improvements that need to be made.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor General Wednesday released a 70-page report that outlined a frightening number of shortcomings in the way Utah’s public colleges report and investigate alleged crimes committed on campus.

The audit notes that, in addition to the basic need of an institution of higher learning to provide a safe environment for its students and staff, there are federal requirements for accurate reporting of crime statistics that the schools and the University of Utah Hospital are not always meeting.

Such reporting failures expose the institutions to fines of up to $58,000 per violation. The audit found 141 such errors across the eight institutions, 73 of them at the soon-to-be-renamed Dixie State University, six at the U. and none at Southern Utah University.

Auditors asked, but did not answer, the question of whether any or all of Utah’s public colleges should dissolve their police departments and rely on city, county or state police agencies to provide the same services the rest of us rely on. Now the only Utah public college without its own law enforcement agency is Salt Lake Community College, which contracts with the Utah Highway Patrol for public safety services, and the audit says 98% of public universities nationwide have their own police.

The audit rightly said that it is a complicated question that would involve a detailed assessment of how much a school might be expected to pay a police department, sheriff’s office or the highway patrol for that service, how much it would save by not having its own officers and support staff, as well as analyzing whether each campus would lose anything in terms of community relations or response times through such a change.

The auditors’ calculation was that compensating a local law enforcement agency for its added costs would cost most colleges more than they are paying now for similar or more services. It is still an analysis each school should carry out for itself, with a lot of input from its faculty, staff, students and the surrounding community.

But whether any university has its own police department or relies on municipal law enforcement agencies — the way they do for, say, fire protection — there is still the matter of whether students, staff and departments on campus will call when they need to.

The legislative audit highlighted a handful of cases where an assault, a hate crime or a public sex act was alleged to have taken place on a college campus and nobody notified any law enforcement agency about it for days or weeks afterward.

Even the best law enforcement agency can’t do its job if nobody calls them during or immediately after the commission of a crime. But police agencies that don’t have the trust of the public they serve are much less likely to hear about incidents as they occur, not if people think there’s no point in calling.

And that’s where all of the public universities need more leadership. Whether it’s college or city police on the other end of the phone, the word must get out, from the top, that individuals, housing offices, counseling centers, athletic departments, libraries, cafeterias, clinics, laboratories, financial aid offices and gyms should not be shy about reporting crime whenever and wherever it occurs.

One concern about universities having their own police agencies under the supervision of the school’s administration is that there might be pressure, perhaps unspoken, to downplay any incidents that would give the school an image of being less than perfectly safe. The theory being that being truthful would be bad for recruiting students, reassuring parents and attracting donors.

But that’s why the federal government fines universities for not accurately reporting campus crime statistics. And that’s why every public college and university needs to be served by a law enforcement agency that everyone has confidence in.