UnsafeU Changes Demands, Calls for Defunding and Dissolving UUPD in Wake of Current Protests


Protesters gather at Guardsman Way to demand justice for victims of police brutality in Salt Lake City on June 6, 2020. (Photo by Ivana Martinez | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Kayleigh Silverstein, Special Projects Managing Editor, News Writer


Amid worldwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened media coverage of systemic racism and police brutality, university students are calling on their institutions to make long-lasting changes to combat racism within their own systems.

UnsafeU, a student organization unaffiliated with the University of Utah, sent a list of demands to university leadership with the intent to defund campus police and eventually dissolve UUPD. They published these demands in a medium article earlier this month. 

Distrust of UUPD has been highlighted in recent months, as students spent hours demanding ASUU not fund a police presence in the Union in February, and a car caravan protest held by Students for a Democratic Society on June 6 called to defund UUPD.

Some UnsafeU demands include “maintain a zero-tolerance policy for any officers who repeatedly fail to take effective action,” “remove and ban surveillance tech from campus,” “convert the $13-million dollar building approved to house the University of Utah Police Department into a Wellness Center,” and “do not create contracts with the SLC PD.”

The demands also lay out the specifics for reallocating money saved from defunding UUPD: 60% would go to the Center for Student Wellness and the University Counseling Center, 20% would go to Legal Services for Students, and another 20% would go to various student centers and organizations in an effort to bolster community and campus resources to aid in a situation where a police officer would normally be called. 

UnsafeU is intended to be a connection between students and university leadership, in a way that allows both parties to be heard. The organization was created in the fall of 2019, as the U attempted to dismiss Lauren McCluskey’s parent’s lawsuit following her murder on campus in 2018, and has called for accountability and change in leadership. 

“Some of the work we’ve been doing has been making public University decisions on certain policies that affect students … So we’ve been trying to hopefully increase transparency and in turn, kind of taking students’ responses and student voices and elevating them, giving them more of a platform to university leadership,” said Abhiijith Harikumar, press and greek coordinator for UnsafeU and 5th-year student studying information systems. 

From the start of its creation, UnsafeU believed police reform would be possible and effective for UUPD. After recent protests surrounding recent cases of abuse of power and police brutality, however, UnsafeU decided it was time to call on the U to take systemic action; one of those actions being defunding UUPD.

“Many students [are] coming forward and speaking about how police departments at large, including the University of Utah Police Department, have not been able to provide for students in a consistently safe way. Serious concerns regarding student safety are often very quickly dismissed, not taken seriously,” Harikumar said. 

The medium article speaks about how they have received over 100 accounts of “how the UUPD, OEO, and the Dean of Students office have grossly mishandled sexual assault, rape, mental health, and IPV cases.”

Additionally, Harikumar addressed the discrimination which has been reported within the UUPD itself. 

“We’ve seen an increased level of violence from the police. Just taking solely the accounts that are coming out of UUPD from female officers and officers that end up leaving the force and just seeing the level of harassment, discrimination, leads us to believe that that’s not really an institution that can be reformed as it is, but rather should be abolished, and rebuilt from the ground up,” Harikumar said. 

A visual breakdown of crimes handled by UUPD from 2016-2018.
(Photo courtesy of UnsafeU medium article.)

The concept of defunding the police has created national outcry, with some choosing to “Back the Blue,” and people asking: who would they call instead?

“Defunding the police is not like you just let everyone in the police force go overnight and you lose all protection overnight. It’s the University taking concrete, definitive measures to make sure that historically underfunded programs receive better funding than the police department. I hesitate to think of an instance on campus, or really anywhere, where an untrained stranger with a gun showing up, is your first course of action,” Harikumar said. 

With specific and feasible steps, UnsafeU believes defunding the police will be possible at the U.

“It would be feasible in the sense that we take the funding that we previously used to just give police frankly unnecessary equipment, and put that into student resources that could actually help students in the long run,” Harikumar said. 

When asked to comment on his thoughts on defunding the police, UUPD Chief Rodney Chatman said he would rather not make a statement without knowing the universal definition and scope of what defunding the police entails.

“And so, without a universal understanding or definition of what defund means, or all of the parameters around what that defunding means, it will be difficult to respond to whether I’m in support of that or, in contrast to that, but certainly the national narrative says that we should listen, we should posture ourselves to be willing to listen,” Chatman said. 

Chief Chatman continually referenced his goal to encourage communication between students and the UUPD.

“I think communities don’t want policing done to them. They want policing done in partnership and in collaboration with them. And so the frustrating piece for me is not being able—due to COVID-19—to sit down and meet and talk with students, and be around a literal and figurative table,” Chatman said. 

Marlon C. Lynch, the U’s inaugural chief safety officer, plans to create committees to strengthen communication between students and various safety programs on campus.

The first would be a public safety advisory committee that would be comprised of students, faculty and staff.

“The role of the public safety advisory committee is to establish a direct connection with our community, so that student leaders, as well as industry leaders, would have an opportunity twice a month to meet with myself and my leadership team to work collaboratively together on various initiatives, how they’re implemented, what the needs of our community are and what the expectations and the impact of them would be,” Lynch said. 

The second and final committee Lynch spoke of is the independent review committee which would also be made up of students, faculty and staff. The purpose would be to provide an independent review and discussion of any incidents that occur within the Department of Public Safety. 

“Those comments could be anything from changes in policies and procedures [to] recommendations for training that would be utilized in the corrective action taken with that staff member. Incidents reviewed by that committee would be incidents where there was a violation of civil rights, abusive conduct and language by the public safety staff member, or anything rising to that particular level,” Lynch said.

In addition to community and student-based committees, Lynch plans to create more diverse hiring practices within the Department of Public Safety. 

“We have an opportunity through our own hiring processes to bring more racial and gender diversity within the Public Safety Department as well. And through policies and procedures, the accreditation process that puts in place on how, not just police but other areas, security, as well as emergency management provides services that are based on best practices nationally,” Lynch said. 

Chief Chatman also suggested these initiatives in diverse hiring have already taken place.

“And so as we are reaching out to fill open positions, we have cast a very deliberate and intentional wider net to attract a more diverse population of applicants for our positions. And we think we heard that voice loud and clear that that’s what our campus community demands, but it’s also in line with what my philosophy of successful policing looks like,” Chatman said. 

In addition to diverse hiring practices, Chief Chatman spoke to onboarding processes each new UUPD officer would have to undergo before being sent out to police the campus. 

“Before we release a police officer from their internal training to police the campus, I am instituting some additional onboarding steps when COVID is under control and students, faculty and staff are back. Some intentional time spent with ASUU, intentional time spent with the behavioral intervention team, with our dean of students, with our diversity and inclusion dean, with the Counseling Center, and other stakeholders around campus so that our officers fully understand and have some type of onboarding experience with what it means to be a successful campus police,” Chatman said. 

While diverse hiring practices and community committees could create a stronger connection between the Department of Public Safety and students, Harikumar believes this is not enough, as the U has failed to provide its promised culture of accountability.

“University leadership made a pretty big mistake in placing the burden of creating that culture of accountability on us when it should not have been. Students have been reporting these kinds of incidents and cases for years, and all of it just kind of falls on deaf ears. The steps that need to be taken is university leadership needs to themselves, take multiple steps to prove that they are willing to create an environment in which student concerns are taken seriously,” Harikumar said. 

After this culture of accountability is created and fostered, Harikumar believes surveillance cameras and monitoring of this kind will not be necessary for maintaining a safe campus environment going forward. 

UnsafeU has also recently stated their support for a petition created by BIPOC graduate students at the U who are demanding immediate, short term and long-term change from the board of trustees, President Watkins, and the presidential cabinet. Some demands include releasing data about the races of people involved in police interactions on campus, addressing any salary disparities of BIPOC faculty members and the longer-term goal of eliminating the police department budget entirely.

“I think it’s important to remember that not everyone views the police as a protective force. For many communities, the police have been the instigator of violence, the instigator of pain and trauma. And while I’m very glad that many people have had such positive, healthy, happy interactions with the police, that simply is not the case for a vast majority of students. And, you know, not taking that into account is a failure on the part of leadership,” Harikumar said.


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