Utah universities should consider getting out of policing, editorial board writes


The legislative audit reveals a long list of public safety deficiencies on college campuses.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police cruisers park in the parking lot of the University of Utah Police Department. Staff presented three awards on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, for how school employees handled the case of Lauren McCluskey last fall.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone on a college campus took one look at everything they were doing and decided it was too much.

That they need to sleep more. Exercise more. Go to fewer parties. Drop a class. Change major. Transfer to another college. Joining the Army. Any of the many things that would allow them to focus on what’s most important to them and achieve success.

As is the case for students, it is sometimes also the case for university administrators. And for those who run public universities in Utah, a question that deserves careful consideration is whether running a police department is really something that should be part of a university’s portfolio.

A new audit of policing and public safety issues on Utah’s public college campuses suggests that, three years after the extortion and murder of a University of Utah student drew national attention to the gaps in the safety net that students and staff should expect from these institutions, there is still much room for improvement.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor General released on Wednesday a 70-page report which described a chilling number of shortcomings in how Utah’s public colleges report and investigate alleged crimes on campus.

The audit notes that in addition to a higher education institution’s basic need to provide a safe environment for its students and staff, there are federal requirements for accurate reporting of crime statistics that Schools and the University of Utah Hospital don’t always meet.

Such failures to report expose institutions to fines of up to $58,000 per violation. The audit found 141 such errors at the eight institutions, 73 of them at the soon-to-be-renamed Dixie State University, six at the U. and none at Southern Utah University.

Listeners asked, but did not answer, whether any or all of Utah’s public colleges should disband their police departments and rely on city, county police departments or government to provide the same services we rely on. Now the only public college in Utah without its own law enforcement agency is Salt Lake Community College, which contracts with the Utah Highway Patrol for public safety services, and the audit indicates that 98% of public universities in the country have their own police.

The audit correctly noted that this is a complicated matter that would involve a detailed assessment of how much a school might be expected to pay a police department, sheriff’s office or highway patrol for this service, how much it would save by not having its own officers and support staff, as well as to analyze whether each campus would lose anything in terms of community relations or response time through such a change.

The auditors’ calculation was that compensating a local law enforcement agency for its extra costs would cost most colleges more than they currently pay for similar or more services. This is still an analysis that each school should do for itself, with lots of input from its faculty, staff, students, and surrounding community.

But whether a university has its own police department or relies on municipal law enforcement – ​​as they do, for example, for fire protection – it remains to be seen whether students, staff and campus departments will call when needed.

The legislative audit uncovered a handful of cases where an assault, hate crime or public sex act allegedly took place on a college campus and no one reported it to law enforcement for days or weeks later.

Even the best law enforcement agency cannot do its job if no one calls during or immediately after a crime is committed. But police departments that don’t have the trust of the public they serve are far less likely to hear about incidents as they happen, not if people think it’s unnecessary. to call.

And this is where all public universities need more leadership. Whether it is the police at the university or the city on the other end of the line, the word must get out, from above, that individuals, housing offices, counseling centers, athletic departments, libraries, cafeterias, clinics, laboratories, financial aid offices, and gyms should not hesitate to report a crime whenever and wherever it occurs.

One of the concerns about universities having their own police departments under the supervision of the school administration is that there could be pressure, perhaps tacit, to minimize any incident that would give the school image of being less than perfectly safe. The theory being that being honest would be bad for recruiting students, reassuring parents and attracting donors.

But that’s why the federal government is fining universities for not accurately reporting campus crime statistics. And that’s why every public college and university should be served by a law enforcement agency that everyone trusts.

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