SALT LAKE CITY — The mother of a University of Utah student-athlete who was killed by an ex-boyfriend says recent campus police hirings — including officers focused on relationship violence — may have been able to do more for her daughter had they been in place last October.
"We are happy to hear that the University of Utah hired a victim advocate and a detective assigned to domestic violence. They might have responded with urgency when Lauren was asking for help," Jill McCluskey wrote in an email.
Her daughter, Lauren, was 21 when she was shot and killed outside of her dorm room by Melvin Rowland. Since that time, McCluskey has criticized the university's response to phone calls she and her daughter made to the U.'s Public Safety Department to report Rowland's alarming behavior.
U. President Ruth Watkins says the school has taken seriously its commitment "to enhancing safety on campus with the absolute goal of learning everything we can from this tragedy and doing all we can to reduce the likelihood of future events."
Lauren McCluskey's murder spurred a review of safety protocols at the university by a panel of three veteran law enforcement officers, who concluded the campus police department was understaffed, particularly with officers trained in the investigation of domestic and interpersonal violence. Thirty recommendations were made to the university when the report was released in December, 16 of which applied to campus police.
Watkins said that progress on the recommendations is well underway.
"The university accepted all 30 of the recommendations that were made by the independent reviewers and all 30 have either been completed or are in the process of being completed," she said.
The university recently announced eight new hires for public safety, including victim advocate Jamie Justice.
Domestic violence response
The three-member panel that looked into the October 2018 killing concluded that campus police should have engaged with victim advocates earlier on in the investigation of Lauren McCluskey's complaint. However, according to the report, the police department did not "have a coordinated working relationship" with them.
Enter Jamie Justice, one of three public safety hires to fill roles in the domestic violence unit recommended by the investigation.
As a victim advocate she says her job is to "be the person in your corner, fighting for your rights, making sure that people respect your rights and taking every measure possible to ensure your comfort and safety."
"I think that we live in a world that is scary and hard, and we don't know how to navigate things that we don't understand. I just want to be there for people," Justice said.
On top of working directly with victims, Justice, who has been at her post at the department since early April, said she is writing new protocols for incidents of interpersonal violence on campus.
The next step, she said, would be to implement the protocols and "expand (them) out to other partners or resources on campus."
Justice has a bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's in social work and is the former director of the Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center.
She said she's worked both directly with victims and in program development.
At the justice center, she said, "we were constantly looking at the program, what we could do to improve it, what we could do to better meet the needs of crime victims."
She noted that the experience will help her develop a new protocol for the safety department.
"They hired me on, in large part, to develop the victim services aspect of the department, because that had never been a position within the police department," she said.
Justice said while the university does have victim advocates employed through the Wellness Department, her role would be different.
"My role is distinct from community-based advocates in that I'm working with police officers and with the detectives, though my primary focus is still what is in the best interest of the victim," she said.
She noted that advocates with the wellness center often intervene before a police report is filed. Justice noted that her position would allow her to help a victim work through the justice system after a police report is filed.
Justice also notes that experience has taught her that having a woman in the role can help put victims at ease.
"Given that there are so many victims who are women, I think (having female representation on staff) is important," she said.
Susanne Williams, a former Salt Lake City detective who worked in the domestic violence unit, has also joined the department.
Jill McCluskey had previously voiced criticism over the male-to-female ratio at the university's police department. In a Twitter post on Dec. 19, she wrote: "Only 3 of 31 full-time (university) officers are women (
The department's newly hired spokesman, Dan Metcalf, said "first and foremost, we are going to hire the most-qualified candidates. That is the most important thing but we are sensitive to (female representation) as well."
Shifting campus culture
The Public Safety Department isn't the only focus for the university's president.
Campus culture has been really concerned about safety," Watkins said. "I have found colleagues across the institutions deeply committed to a safe campus environment, to learning from tragedy and to making a safer institution."
As part of the recommendations, a new safety outreach manager was hired in the Department of Housing and Residential Education, and protocols for all new employees to receive online weapons policy training were implemented.
Watkins said the department assessed improvements "that would add an additional layer of security to older residence halls." Tighter security, she noted, was already in place in newer buildings.
It was also recommended the university either move the police department to a new location or renovate the facility.
"We are in a building that was (in part) built in the 1940s as part of an Army barracks during World War II," Metcalf said, adding that there isn't "enough space to even house the folks that we have here, and for us to expand, we are going to need more space."
Watkins said an initial study to determine the best location for the department should be completed in the fall, however the timetable for relocation would depend on recommendations.
"We have made (the project) a priority for the institution," she said.2 comments on this story
University Police Chief Dale Brophy said "we know that these changes will advance our ability to provide key services that help make our campus safer and we are grateful to the university for their support and confidence as we apply these improvements."
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported that a $500,000 one-time appropriation from the state Legislature designated for critical incident data analytics would be used to help fund a new or renovated public safety building. The money would actually come from other sources.