SALT LAKE CITY — Conducting proper background checks. Improved domestic violence training. Improved communication between departments on campus and outside law enforcement agencies.
These are just some of the many steps that have already been taken to make the University of Utah a safer campus, according to U. President Ruth Watkins and U. Department of Public Safety Chief Dale Brophy.
Watkins, Brophy and other school leaders delivered a presentation to the University of Utah board of trustees on Tuesday, updating members on the implementation status of 30 recommendations made by an independent review team following the on-campus murder of student Lauren McCluskey in October.
The meeting was held, coincidentally, on what would have been McCluskey's 22nd birthday, something that did not go unnoticed by her mother, Jill McCluskey, who tweeted Monday night that she learned of the board meeting through the media.
"I have two questions: 1) Did you know this meeting is on her birthday? 2) Will you admit that you didn't respond appropriately to Lauren, which led to her death and take disciplinary action?" she wrote on Twitter.
On Tuesday, when asked by board Vice-Chairman Phillip W. Clinger if those directly involved in the McCluskey case had been held properly accountable, Watkins said yes, but also said no one had been fired.
"I’ve had many, private, difficult conversations about this situation about corrective actions and about our expectations moving forward. The actions that we have taken have been guided by my best judgment and by what I believe will ultimately make this a safer campus moving forward, as safe a campus as we can ensure.
"I do not believe it serves the ultimate mission of enhancing campus safety to fire anyone who acted in good faith and is capable and deeply committed to doing better. At the same time, I fully expect accountability and compliance with these actions moving forward,” Watkins said.
Likewise, Brophy said none of his officers had been fired. As he has before, he declined to say whether anyone has been disciplined, stating that the department does not talk about personnel matters.
Several university officials acknowledged Lauren's birthday as they updated the board Tuesday on what has been done to improve the safety for students since the tragedy.
McCluskey was shot and killed by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, while walking home from class near her dorm after weeks of Rowland's attempts to extort her. From Oct. 10 until her death, McCluskey made multiple calls to the U. police department. She even called Salt Lake police in hopes of quicker action.
But university police never conducted a proper background check on Rowland, who was on the Utah Sex Offender Registry and had served many years in the Utah State Prison, and at least one call made by McCluskey to the officer assigned to her case went to voicemail because the officer was not on duty.
A three-member independent review panel found numerous mistakes were made by the university and by campus police, but concluded that it was impossible to say whether McCluskey's death could have been prevented. McCluskey's parents, however, have been very vocal since their daughter's killing in expressing their belief that her death was preventable and the university didn't do enough to help her.
The independent report also found at least 30 areas that could use improvement on campus and with the police department to help protect students. On Tuesday, Watkins, Brophy and others gave the board of trustees an update on each of those 30 points.
Sixteen of those 30 recommendations involved the U. police department.
"Some of those larger issues were our systems weren’t talking to each other. If you had a security interaction, it wasn’t in the same database as a police interaction. We’ve fixed that and that’s no longer an issue for us,” Brophy said Tuesday.
In addition to better communication with other departments on campus, Brophy said the university has approved $600,000 for the department to hire six new officers, which includes three positions that were vacant at the time of McCluskey's death.
Brophy said his department is hiring a victim advocate and a community relations specialist and that the first round of interviews for those positions is scheduled for Thursday. Two detectives and an administrative lieutenant were also being hired, which Brophy hoped would soon form a new specialized unit for interpersonal violence.
In addition, the department recently received training from the Salt Lake City Police Department's sergeant over the domestic violence unit, and has entered into an agreement with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition to receive training on the Lethality Assessment Program — a set of questions officers ask a victim when they respond to a domestic violence call to determine the threat level of that person being in the home. The program has become commonplace in recent years for most law enforcement agencies in Salt Lake County.
Brophy said his officers are also receiving training on all criminal databases.
"How to use them, where to find them, and then actually mandating using them when we’ve identified a suspect in any type of criminal case,” he explained.
Furthermore, Brophy said his department now has improved communications with Adult Probation and Parole, including access to a phone number that reaches someone around the clock — something the department did not have at the time of McCluskey's death. Likewise, the chief said all domestic or interpersonal calls his office receives will get a return call that day rather than sit in an in-basket. Dispatchers will be able to reach an officer at any hour of the day, he said.
Other measures being taken to improve safety around campus that don't directly involve the police department include replacing students who manage community desks with security staff, hiring an outreach coordinator for student housing, updating some of the older student housing areas with more secure doors and security cameras, and just raising awareness overall with students.
"When I read the review team’s report and saw these deficiencies, I was deeply concerned. I’m making it my personal and professional responsibility to see that these shortcomings are addressed quickly and reasonably,” said Barb Snyder, the vice president of Student Affairs.
Snyder, who has already announced her retirement, had to pause and collect herself as she talked about the safety of students.
"I want part of my legacy at the U. to be having contributed to a safer campus for every student,” she said.
Likewise, Watkins — who again called the McCluskey killing an "absolute tragedy" and stated the campus continues to mourn — said she will abide by all of the review panel's recommendations.
"I’m committed to addressing each of the shortcomings identified," she said. "I’m taking personal responsibility to see that every one of the review team’s 30 recommendations is put into place as quickly as possible."
When asked if he had had contact with the McCluskey family since their public criticisms of the department, Brophy said a deputy chief still updates the family on the case when there are updates to give. When asked if that means the investigation was still open, the chief said yes, but declined to say what police are still investigating.
As for Tuesday being Lauren McCluskey's birthday, the chief said he imagined it was a hard day for her parents.
"I can’t imagine how difficult it is for her parents. I understand their frustration, I understand their anger. I can’t even imagine how hard it is and how difficult it is for them,” he said.