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Report: University of Utah police understaffed, but student's murder may not have been preventable

(Laura Seitz, KSL)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Even if the campus police department wasn't understaffed, overworked and inexperienced, state and University of Utah officials aren't sure officers could have prevented the murder of Lauren McCluskey.

"Whether or not we can say with certainty that her death could have been prevented in this particular situation, we just simply cannot do that. All we can say is we hope we have systems in place in the future that will lessen the probability of this kind of a thing happening," said John T. Nielsen, who headed up the three-member panel assigned to investigate how university police handled the McCluskey case.

"This report does not offer us a reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented. But instead, the report tells us how we can improve,” added University of Utah President Ruth Watkins.

On Oct. 22, McCluskey, 21, a star student-athlete at the U., was shot and killed by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, a man she had dated for about a month before she discovered he was a convicted sex offender and nearly two decades her senior.

Her death followed extortion attempts by Rowland. McCluskey had made several reports to university police in the days leading up to her death.

In November, the university announced that a team comprised of three veteran law enforcers would conduct an investigation of University of Utah police to find out whether more could have been done to prevent McCluskey's death. The team included Nielsen, a former Utah Department of Public Safety commissioner, Keith Squires, who retired earlier this year as public safety commissioner, and Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administration and a former university police chief in Wisconsin.

The findings of the report, in addition to the findings of an independent review commissioned by Gov. Gary Herbert to look into how Adult Probation and Parole handled the case and "the justice system overall," were released Wednesday.

"We determined that the University of Utah Public Safety is understaffed, not only with respect for the need for more patrol officers, but other officers and detectives trained in the investigation of domestic and interpersonal violence,” Nielsen said.

The report recommended that the department utilize the Lethality Assessment Protocol, a set of questions officers ask victims of domestic violence to determine whether a victim is at risk for greater violence, specifically homicide. Most police departments across the valley have been using lethality assessment for a few years.

The report also found that most of the interaction between officers and McCluskey was done by text, email and phone calls, and recommended that the department require interviews in domestic violence cases be done in person.

"Demeanor, anxiety, expressions of fear are much more readily apparent with personal contact,” Nielsen said.

While it is impossible to say whether a larger staff at the U. and the use of such programs would have prevented the McCluskey tragedy, Nielsen said it would have had an impact on how officers responded.

"I think there would have been a greater sensitivity to the kinds of issues that Lauren was facing. This was looked at primarily through the eyes of criminal law rather than the more subtle aspects of domestic violence," he said.

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The report also found that university officers failed to check Rowland's offender status.

"None of the officers involved sought to discover if Rowland was under the supervision of the Division of Adult Probation and Parole, notwithstanding the fact that a criminal history check was conducted and that Lauren suspected that Rowland and his friends were behind the extortion attempts,” Nielsen said.

But again, Nielsen doesn't know if that information had been discovered and passed on to Rowland's parole officer, if it would have made a difference.

"All I can tell you is that the information that could have been available with respect to (Melvin Rowland's) offender status, at least should have been reported to the parole agent. What the parole agent (would do) beyond that, we don't know," he said.

The report also found a flaw in the system.

When an officer did a background check on Rowland using his driver's license, he was not flagged as being on parole. Current public safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said that was the result of a change the state made in May to comply with federal law. Anderson said his report is recommending changes on the state level to fix that.

Still, Nielsen's report also noted that U. officers "seemed to lack the knowledge and awareness" of how the state systems that alert officers of an offender's status with Adult Probation and Parole worked.

Other findings of Nielsen's report:

  • A fake email sent to police, purportedly written by Rowland posing as the university's assistant police chief in an attempt to lure McCluskey out of her apartment, went unnoticed until after her death because officers aren't required to check their email on weekends.
  • A report by McCluskey's friends that Rowland had talked about bringing a gun onto campus to give to McCluskey was not given to police. Rowland was frequently violating the campus housing guest policy, and "had easy access to the housing unit," Nielsen said. "There needs to be significantly greater oversight and attention to housing guest policy issues,” he said.
  • Campus victim advocates should have been engaged very early in the investigation, but the police department "does not have a coordinated working relationship" with them.
  • The University of Utah Public Safety Department headquarters is "inadequate for current policing and security needs and is poorly located."

Watkins said the university is "deeply committed" to making the changes recommended in the report. She said the police department has requested five additional people be hired immediately, including the department's own victim advocate and a detective with specialties in handling domestic violence cases.

"Chief Brophy has my full confidence. He accepts the recommendations, agrees with them, and in fact embraces them and the opportunity to learn and move forward,” she said, adding that she believed the chief has the "ability, talent and commitment to lead these changes going forward."

Riseling noted during Wednesday's news conference announcing the panel's findings that university police officers aren't like traditional city police officers. In addition to working investigations, university police officers are also responsible for major events on campus — such as security for guest speakers and sporting events — as well as overseeing two major hospitals. Often, as was the case with the officer assigned to the McCluskey case, officers are asked by outside agencies to do follow-up investigating involving victims taken to University Hospital or Primary Children's Hospital.

McCluskey's extortion case was not ignored by university police, she emphasized.

Furthermore, both Nielsen and Anderson agreed that Rowland, who was on the Utah Sex Offender Registry and in and out of the Utah State Prison three times over the past two decades, was very good at hiding his criminal activity and covering his tracks.

"It’s my opinion that Melvin Shawn Rowland was about as good at his craft as anybody that I have interacted with. He was a very, very clever, very bright, career criminal,” Nielsen said.

"He was a very manipulative individual," added Anderson. "He knew exactly what he was doing. He was a true criminal. He always had the right answers when (a parole officer) would show up, and two out of three home visits, he was at home. And he always had a clean phone."

Anderson said Rowland was "spoofing" phone numbers, or using numbers that weren't his, to send messages and was using several aliases. Among the messages Rowland is believed to have sent McCluskey from other numbers in the days leading up to her death was a message claiming Rowland had been in a car crash, and another claimed he was dead. But McCluskey was skeptical, according to the report, believing Rowland was trying to lure her out of her apartment.

The panel also talked Wednesday about the challenges the university police department faces in hiring new officers due to competing salaries with other law enforcement agencies and the changes made by the state Legislature in retirement benefits for law enforcers.

Nielsen's panel will now look at how the University of Utah can improve campus safety overall. That report, scheduled to be completed by next spring, will focus on overall campus safety, including such issues as lighting, student parking closer to buildings and additional safety training for students.

Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting the YWCA's Women in Jeopardy program at 801-537-8600, or the confidential statewide Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-897-LINK (5465). Resources are also available online at


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