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Students Are Returning To Campus And U Safety Leaders Want To Rebuild Trust Amid Amplified Scrutiny

Photo of student protesters holding signs.
Cami Mondeaux
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KUER
Protests have been happening often on the University of Utah campus since Lauren McCluskey was killed outside her dorm in 2018. Students pictured here gathered in October of 2019 to call for justice in her case.

Students Are Returning To Campus And U Safety Leaders Want To Rebuild Trust Amid Amplified Scrutiny
KUER's Caroline Ballard speaks with the University of Utah's Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch.

The University of Utah’s Department of Public Safety has two relatively new faces this year. University Police Chief Rodney Chatman and Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch both joined the school in February, right before the COVID-19 pandemic picked up steam. 

As students go back to class this week, Chatman and Lynch in separate interviews shared their take on policing, student protests and how they’re approaching campus safety in the midst of a pandemic.

Courtney Tanner, a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, also weighed in on Chatman’s remarks about university policing and his actions following a recent independent investigation.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

On The Findings Of The Lauren McCluskey Investigation Review

The investigation did find evidence that former U police officer Miguel Deras showed explicit pictures of McCluskey to other officers and that there may have been inappropriate comments by others on the force. The Utah Department of Public Safety recently completed an independent investigation of the University of Utah police force's actions in the Lauren McCluskey case. McCluskey was a University of Utah student who was killed on campus by her ex-boyfriend in 2018. She reported her harassment to police multiple times in the week before her death. 

Caroline Ballard: Chief Chatman, you called for the independent outside investigation. That's complete now, and you've said you're pursuing some sort of action against the officers who were involved. What happens next?

Rodney Chatman:I think we continue the work that we're on. I can share that the three officers that were identified as engaging in an inappropriate manner — I can say they are no longer employed by the university. 

We recently redid our mission and core values of our department — mostly done in part by the officers here who are committed to the work of rebuilding trust with our campus community. And what happens next is we position ourselves in earnest so that we listen to the campus community. We position ourselves where we give them a legitimate seat at the table in the manner in which we redesign the way campus policing looks here specifically. And I think more than anything else, the key word is to listen.

Caroline Ballard: Students protested once the findings were released, calling for the closure & disbandment of the university police force.How do you respond to those protests? 

Rodney Chatman: It's very difficult to be a student in this day and age, and on top of all that they are doing, I applaud them for taking on the mantle of leadership and taking on a responsible way to communicate their desire for change. So I think they need to be applauded for the peaceful demonstration that they led.

Marlon Lynch:There will always be protests. What I will say was different in that most recent protest that occurred at the university police department was the fact that there was communication directly with that particular group in regards to how they could protest safely. [There was] even an invitation for the university police to come out and engage the protesters and have conversations at that particular moment. And I think that's progress. 

Caroline Ballard: Why should a university have its own police force?

Rodney Chatman: Society is such that I believe you need police just for the mere fact of the threat of active shooters — that there are people out there who will do harm to their fellow man just because that’s the way they are wired.

Then there’s the need to have students protected in a much more diligent way than most municipalities can give. And we need to have an educational component of the work that we do. We need to have those collaborative and partnership relationships with our students so that we are preparing them to take on the world when they graduate.

Photo of signs that read 'We don't trust U'.
Credit Ivana Martinez / Daily Utah Chronicle
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Daily Utah Chronicle
Students, the community and Lauren McCluskey's family have called into question the lack of action taken by the University of Utah Police in the months and days leading up to her death. One student group is calling for the U Police to be disbanded.

On Departmental Changes & Improving Community Trust

With the installment of Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch and Police Chief Rodney Chatman earlier this year, campus safety has entirely new leadership since the murder of Lauren McCluskey in October 2018. When they were hired, both Chatman and Lynch listed rebuilding trust among the campus community as among their top priorities.

Since they joined the university, protests against police and racial inequality have broken out nationwide and here in Salt Lake City, sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Protesters are calling for police reform and in some cases, disbandment of the police altogether.

Caroline Ballard: What changes do you hope to make to the department, its policies and its procedures?

Rodney Chatman: As of July 1, we are seeking CALEA accreditation [Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies], which will mean that after we complete that process, we have adopted and have been proofed as having model policy and procedure. Other than that, every day that we are coming to work, we are seeking to be better than we were the day before and knowing our ultimate goal is to rebuild any lost trust.

Caroline Ballard: Do you have any concrete ideas of how to do that, especially as many students will not be physically coming back to campus?

Rodney Chatman: I want to not just roll out a bunch of things and just put it onto the students and say, "yeah, this is what's best for you." I think what we're hearing from students and what we're hearing on a national level is communities are saying we want to have a say so on this. We want to have a voice in how policing is done in our communities. And we know that there are going to be difficult conversations that we need to have, not necessarily need cheerleaders around the table of police, but those people have some legitimate hurts and perceived trust that needs to be rebuilt. We're committed to rolling up our sleeves and getting it done.

Marlon Lynch: In regards to concrete steps, it is the participation on the Public Safety Advisory Committee, which is something that was asked for and that will be in effect this semester. It will be staffed with students, faculty and staff from across the institution. There will also be an independent review committee that will provide the same opportunity: direct input from students, faculty and staff regarding complaints against public safety staff and being able to provide feedback. 

Working together, it creates a better understanding. And that's the overall goal is to be part of the community all the time, not just in times of where there is potential opposition.

Caroline Ballard: How are you approaching building trust with the current moment in mind?

Marlon Lynch: I think the current moment actually helps to propel that. This was an opportunity for the University of Utah to actually be transformational. This particular role [of Chief Safety Officer] and what we've done with our reorganization of the department is very much along the lines of what we are hearing in regards to police or public safety reformation. 

For example, the university police department, U health security, campus security, emergency management and a newly formed division of community services — those were all part of the police department prior to this reorganization. Now those functions have been pulled out of the police department and they have been enhanced and resources have been allocated to them. So we're taking the opportunity to allow our university police department to not just focus on police operations, but to actually spend time when things are going well to establish those relationships and trust.

Photo of student protesters marching with signs.
Credit Ivana Martinez / Daily Utah Chronicle
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Daily Utah Chronicle
UnSafe U protesters march from the public safety building to President Circle at the University of Utah Campus in Salt Lake City to protest the actions of officers involved in the Lauren McCluskey case on August 6, 2020.

On COVID-19 & Other Campus Health Concerns

When the pandemic hit this spring, the University of Utah shut down and sent most students home to finish the semester virtually. This fall, the University of Utah is pursuing a hybrid model, with some classes being held online and others being held in person.

Caroline Ballard: With the COVID-19 pandemic, even more of a student's experience is pushed online. If a student is learning from somewhere off campus, even in another state, but is getting harassed by another student virtually, what's the campus police's role in that?

Rodney Chatman: One, as it is with any case, we establish jurisdiction. So if it's the jurisdiction of where the caller resides — part of what we do as a police department, as we are rebuilding trust with our campus community, the campus community includes students, faculty and staff — but we are not forgetting our local law enforcement partners and our partners across the nation. 

A large part of what we do is we develop strong relationships with other departments and cooperate with them in terms of sharing intelligence and the information needed to bring any call to its proper resolution.

Caroline Ballard: This year is going to look very different because of COVID-19. How are you protecting students in an unpredictable and more virtual, online learning experience?

Marlon Lynch:One thing is how the instruction is given. Approximately 25% of the classes will be in person. The focus of those would be like the experiential learning classes: laboratories, performing arts, things of that nature. It is based on social distancing as well as hygiene. 

Part of the other protection is the fact that the students are being tested — for those living in the residence halls — so that we will know what we can anticipate within our housing. Then those that do test positive, there are designated rooms within residence halls to where they can go for quarantine or isolation. We're actively involved in contact tracing and even [for] those that are faculty and staff, there are procedures and resources available for them as well.

Caroline Ballard: When it comes to safety, what else will students notice that's different when they return to campus?

Marlon Lynch: I know what they'll find with the university police department is an opportunity to be more engaged. And even beyond the university police — campus security and U health security — [there will be] opportunities for our community to actually have a direct impact on how they will receive public safety services.

Reporter Response, Courtney Tanner Of The Salt Lake Tribune

Courtney Tanner, a reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune, has been reporting on the Lauren McCluskey case for some time now and listened in to the conversation with Police Chief Chatman. 

Caroline Ballard: Chief Chatman said he wants to focus on rebuilding lost trust in campus police. What have you heard from students about that effort?

Courtney Tanner:I think this effort, as Chief Chatman acknowledged, is going to take time, but students do seem fairly receptive to it. The police department has created two new committees that students are involved with to look at different discipline of officers when misconduct comes up, as well as a committee to look at policies that the police department will institute. They seem to be working hand-in-hand together to put in place what they'd like to see at the university.

Caroline Ballard:What about the McCluskey family? They have lawsuits that are still moving forward against the university and the state. What has their response been to this latest investigation and its findings that an officer inappropriately shared Lauren's photos?

Courtney Tanner:From the beginning when the Tribune first published a story on this, they expressed disappointment, obviously. Jill McCluskey in particular, Lauren McCluskey's mother, was pretty upset that an officer was essentially using the photos of her daughter personally instead of actually investigating her case. There are two lawsuits. They have one in the state court and one in the federal court. Those are still moving forward and they've actually been adjusted now to include this new information about Officer Deras.

Caroline Ballard:Chief Chatman said that they have removed three officers from the force over this incident. Does this response feel different from how the university has reacted in the past?

Courtney Tanner: This definitely feels different. It seems like Chief Chatman is taking allegations of misconduct seriously and really trying to change the culture of the department. Previously, after the first investigation was done into how Lauren McCluskey's case was handled, the university said that it wasn't going to take any action against any of the officers on campus, and they largely held to that. They didn't fire anyone because of the mistakes made, and now they are actually taking this action against officers.

Caroline Ballard: Do you think there’s more optimism among students and other stakeholders who have been watching the university police force for the last two years about this new future that Chief Chatman has put forth.

Courtney Tanner: It’s kind of a cliche when you say “cautious optimism,” but I think that truly is the case here. I think that both students and stakeholders are cautiously optimistic and hope that things are actually going to change moving forward with this new leadership.

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