Utah universities should consider getting out of the police business, the editor writes

Legislative scrutiny uncovers a long list of public safety deficiencies on college campuses.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police cars are parked in the parking lot of the University of Utah Police Department. Staff there presented three awards on Wednesday, June 5, 2019 for how school staff handled Lauren McCluskey’s case last fall.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone on a college campus has scrutinized all the things they’re doing and decided it’s just too much.

That they need more sleep. get more exercise Go to fewer parties. Drop a class. Change her major. Change to another university. Join the army. A set of things that would allow them to focus and thrive on what matters most to them.

As for students, it is sometimes also for university administrations. And for those who run public universities in Utah, a question worth investigating closely is whether running a police department is really something that should be in a university’s portfolio.

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

The Office of the Legislative Auditor General released a 70-page report Wednesday that outlined a startling number of flaws in the way Utah’s public colleges report and investigate alleged crimes committed on campus.

The audit notes that in addition to a college’s basic need to provide a safe and secure environment for its students and staff, there are federal requirements for accurate reporting of crime statistics that the University of Utah schools and hospital do not 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 at what was soon to be renamed Dixie State University, six at the U. and none at Southern Utah University.

Comptrollers asked, but did not answer, whether some or all of Utah’s public colleges should disband their police departments and rely on city, county, or state police agencies to provide the same services that the rest of us depend on. 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 says 98% of public universities nationwide have their own police force.

The audit rightly said it was a complicated question that involved a detailed assessment of how much a school might be expected to pay a police department, sheriff’s office, or highway patrol department for that service, and how much it would save if it did not have its own officers and support staff, as well as analyzing whether each campus would lose anything in terms of community relations or response times from such a change.

The examiners’ calculation was that compensating a local law enforcement agency for their additional costs would cost most colleges more than they now pay for similar or more services. It is still an analysis that each school should undertake for itself, with plenty of input from its faculty, staff, students and the surrounding community.

But whether a university has its own police department or relies on city law enforcement — like they do with fire safety, for example — the question remains whether students, staff, and departments will call campus when they need to.

The statute review has highlighted 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 days or weeks afterward.

Even the best law enforcement agency cannot do its job if it is not called during or immediately after a crime is committed. But police departments that don’t have the public trust they serve are far less likely to hear about incidents when they occur, not when people think there’s no point in calling.

And this is where all public universities need more leadership. Whether it’s college or city police on the other end of the phone, it needs to come out from the top down that individuals, housing departments, counseling centers, athletic departments, libraries, cafeterias, clinics, laboratories, welfare offices, and gyms shouldn’t be afraid to report crimes, when whenever and wherever they appear.

A concern with universities that have their own law enforcement agencies under the supervision of school administrators is that there may be unspoken pressure to downplay incidents that would give the school the impression of being unsafe. The theory goes that honesty is bad for recruiting students, reassuring parents, and attracting donors.

But that’s why the federal government fines universities for not accurately reporting campus crime statistics. And that’s why every public college and university needs to be served by a law enforcement agency that everyone can trust.

About Stephanie McGehee

Check Also

Pros and Cons of Cryptocurrency Mining in New York State

Last month, the New York State Assembly voted to pass Democratic Member of Parliament Anna …