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Campus safety concerns in a new audit ‘echo’ problems revealed after Lauren McCluskey’s murder

New legislative audit notes University of Utah’s commitment to improve reporting, but finds ‘additional opportunities for improvement’

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Lauren McCluskey

Lauren McCluskey

University of Utah

Some 3½ years after the on-campus slaying of University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, findings of a new legislative audit on campus police departments “echo” some of the same concerns of an independent review that followed McCluskey’s death.

“The report recommended that the campus community should know about the expectation to report threats or possible threats through the proper channels, including the U. police. ... We do not believe this reporting is happening in all cases,” the audit states.

The audit cites three separate incidents in which university police did not receive timely information. According to U. police, the incidents included:

  • A 2021 assault stemming from a dispute between roommates over alleged payments for drugs. One roommate, identified in court records as Kang Jie Lee, 21, is accused of holding a kitchen knife to his roommate’s throat and forcing him to send a payment through Venmo. The incident was not reported for nearly 24 hours. Lee was arrested late last fall and remains in jail.

According to court records, Lee faces multiple charges in 3rd District Court, including four felony counts that include aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, retaliation against a witness and aggravated kidnapping.

  • A potential hate crime reported to Housing and Residential Education staff in the fall of 2021, but not to police. The case remains open.
  • Reports of a student masturbating during a class in 2019. After other students reported the incident to police two weeks later, officers reviewed audio recordings of the lecture and called the student in for questioning. The student was disciplined administratively.

The case of the student threatened by a roommate was not reported to police for nearly 24 hours after housing officials found out about it, “making it impossible for U. police to take immediate action,” the audit states.

“Indeed, once police responded, their investigation uncovered additional, highly concerning criminal behavior beyond the initial allegation. Police were then able to arrest the perpetrator,” according to the audit.

The auditors wrote that instances of delayed reporting to University of Utah police “negatively impacted public safety because of the missed opportunity for a more timely assessment and response.”

In an interview Wednesday night, Acting U. Police Chief Jason Hinojosa said in each of the cases, he wished the incidents had been reported to police sooner, but there are times when witnesses, victims and survivors are reluctant to come forward.

“We wish we would have known a little bit earlier for obvious reasons. But when we did get the information we acted on it, did a lot of interviews and located him pretty quickly and placed him into custody,” Hinojosa said regarding the alleged assault of the roommate.

The university continues to train staff and offer ongoing training to strike the balance of respecting victims’ rights but at the same time impressing upon staff the need to report information to police.

“If the reported crime is a continuing or ongoing threat to public safety on campus, then we have to have that information so that we can act to mitigate that threat. We don’t want anybody else to be victimized,” Hinojosa said.

The audit recommends that the U. address its Clery Act reporting deficiencies by streamlining its many reporting pathways. 

The U.’s Chief Safety Officer Keith Squires was part of a team that conducted the independent review of McCluskey’s homicide in 2018. He is a former commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety and was named to his current position in January 2022.

Having conducted an external review, “I know the value of having an outside set of eyes come in, look at your operation and potentially helping you find areas that you can improve on, so this whole process, for me, was very healthy,” Squires told the Deseret News on Wednesday.

The audit was released Wednesday during a meeting of the Utah Legislature’s Audit Subcommittee.

Squires said in the past three years, the university has made “impressive strides as far as the communication and coordination between public safety and the other departments, but there’s always the potential that information can be brought forward by a victim or survivor and communicated to someone who’s in an intake position, such as at housing. That can be a place where it doesn’t get reported as quickly as we would like it to.”

The legislative audit, “Performance Audit of Higher Education Police Departments,” also raised concerns about crimes that occurred within the university’s health care system that had not been reported as required by the Clery Act.

The Clery Act requires public and private colleges and universities to disclose information about certain crimes that occur on or near campus. It applies to all colleges and universities that receive federal funding, including student financial aid.

“What they (legislative auditors) found really was a product of proactive effort that we had here at the university last year” which involved sending leaders of university safety and police, general counsel, U. Health administration, Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, and student services jointly to a training on the Clery Act.

“Through that training, they discovered that there was some responsibility for our clinics, which are located off campus, to start reporting information about crime that occurs there. That’s Clery-reportable crimes in our report, which we just weren’t aware of before. So once we’ve learned that we are now including that information and, again, that also ties into the fact that that’s not our police jurisdiction, so we have to work in cooperation with whatever police agency has jurisdiction in that area,” Squires said.

The audit also found gaps in how the higher education system responded to legislation passed in 2020 and 2021 that requires statewide reporting of crimes committed in on-campus housing and a statewide study of campus law enforcement benefits and disadvantages.

The audit included numerous recommendations for police agencies on each of the public colleges and universities that are part of the Utah System of Higher Education. Except Salt Lake Community College, all have campus law enforcement agencies. SLCC contracts with the Utah Highway Patrol.

Regardless of the arrangement, each campus is responsible to comply with Clery Act requirements, the auditors wrote.

The audit identified data entry errors in nearly all USHE institutions’ Clery Act crimes reports. “Such errors can lead to fines from the U.S. Department of Education,” the auditors wrote.

The auditors found 141 “potential Clery Act data entry errors,” 73 of them at Dixie State University between 2016 and 2019. Auditors discovered 23 data entry errors at Snow College, 14 at Utah State University and a dozen each at Utah Valley University and Weber State University. Six were reported at the U., one at SLCC and none at Southern Utah University.

The audit notes that Dixie State and UVU reported new leadership put in place since 2019 identified the errors and steps have been taken to improve data entry.

The auditors also recommended that the state’s degree-granting colleges and universities consider accreditation as a tool to review and improve police operations with the independence and accountability of an outside entity.

In a written response to the audit, the Utah System of Higher Education noted that Dixie State University and Utah State University had each attained accreditation through the Utah Chiefs of Police Association. Meanwhile, the University of Utah is working toward accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

“While accreditation comes at a cost of both time and money and it will not guarantee immediate improvement in operations, we believe that benefits from such an option should be considered,” the USHE response stated.

A recent review of incidents reported to Housing and Residential Education conducted by the law firm Husch Blackwell and commissioned by the U. examined 1,620 incident reports in fall 2021 ranging from a candle burning in a dorm room to serious safety concerns.

“Husch Blackwell found that in almost all cases, incidents were escalated or reported to the appropriate office in line with university protocols. The report indicates that fewer than 1% suggest situations where housing-safety or racist/bias incidents were not communicated appropriately among university offices or to the university community in a timely manner.

“While progress can be made toward best practices, the report finds University of Utah policies and practices to be within the guardrails of national higher education standards,” according to a summary released by the university.”