McGrath: Defunding UUPD to Kill Two Birds With One Stone


University of Utah police officer M. Veatupu surveys the crowd during a time out in the UCLA vs. Utah basketball game at the Huntsman Center, University of Utah Campus, Salt Lake City, UT on Thursday, February 20th, 2020. (Photo by Mark Draper | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Mackenzie McGrath


Mental health is often treated as a second hand thought and stigmatized in academia, especially for students of color. White students are significantly more likely to receive and use in-school services than their non-white peers. Not only are they disproportionately affected, but young people of racial and ethnic minorities with behavioral and mental health struggles are more likely to be referred to the juvenile system as opposed to a primary care setting.

Accessibility to these services at the University of Utah isn’t great either. In recent years, students have had to wait an average of four weeks to see a licensed professional, if they are not turned away due to high volume and lack of services fitting said students’ needs. This is incredibly dangerous when addressing mental health crises. The country is already dealing with a pandemic that kills a greater proportion of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many Black students may experience worsening mental health and collective trauma.

There are multiple ways the U can take action to support students. UnSafe U calls for better funding into the Student Wellness Center that would house “mental, intimate partner violence and sexual violence services, counseling, legal aid, Office of Equal Opportunity and other direct support for students.” As we come back to school this fall, the U needs to evaluate and assess how it can better support students’ mental health.

UnSafe.U’s plan would provide funding for a Student Wellness Center by defunding the University of Utah Police Department and repurposing the $13 million police department facility. Students have spoken out against UUPD in the past. Just last month, students held a car caravan protest demanding the defunding of campus police.

When presented with a proposal to grow UUPD’s presence in the Student Union, ASUU Senate unanimously voted against it. Many of the people who spoke out about the bill were students of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and survivors of sexual assault. “When it was their turn, nearly every one suggested the same thing: The communities they come from — the most marginalized on campus and the most vulnerable — would be the most impacted.” They said that they wouldn’t feel safe with a greater police presence.

Of all the crime on campus, 71.3 percent is substance-related. This does not need UUPD intervention, nor is it worth the funding. What about the rest of the 28.7 percent? This includes sexual abuse, property crimes, physical assault, hate crimes and murder — and we’ve already seen them fail when they were needed the most. Lauren McCluskey and her family and friends called UUPD dispatch multiple times to express concern with McCluskey’s safety. Seven days after the first calls, UUPDF opened a formal investigation. Twelve days after the first calls, Lauren was murdered. We now know that the officer in charge of her case shared the sexually explicit images of Lauren from her case.

Female officers have reported abuse while working for the university’s police force. One officer told lawyers defending the McCluskey case that her male officers urinated in her work bag. There are multiple accounts of sexual abuse towards female officers, with instances of verbal sexual harassment and unwanted touching. Officer Jennifer Smalley said that when UUPD detectives questioned a rape victim they would focus on asking about the decisions she made that night rather than the assault, asking what underwear she was wearing and if she was a virgin previous to the assault.

If the police are failing the most basic components of their job, are they really an important factor for student safety? Police officers aren’t necessarily the best equipped to respond to unruly college students in the first place — but UUPD has shown an even greater level of incompetence on top of that. They are wildly out of touch with students and have proven that they grossly mishandle crime on campus. By investing in mental health services, the U could have crisis counselors, student health advocates and professionals trained to actually help students.

You know the old saying, “kill two birds with one stone?” We have a chance to do just that here at the U. Defunding the UUPD to fund a wellness center will not only improve the response to crime on campus, it will also support students’ mental health this fall. The University of Utah owes its students the promise of safety in all aspects of health, and it can do so by dismantling the systems that have failed students before and establishing ones that will foster a culture of health and safety.


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