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Are Police Liable for Not Stopping a Murder When They're Warned About It?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Crime happens. The police can't be everywhere at once, and some criminal activity is either unpredictable or unavoidable.

But not all of it. When a woman claims she's being harassed by a sex offender, and officers determine his actions violate his probation, and he is being investigated for new and ongoing criminal activity, and both the woman and her mother have contacted law enforcement seeking help, that seems like a time when criminal activity is both predictable and avoidable. And yet, University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey is dead, murdered by a man who campus police and local officers knew or should have known was a danger. So, are those departments liable for her death?

Last Moments

"Rowland, like I said, was a manipulator," University Police Chief Dale Brophy said during a news conference after McCluskey's killing. "If his lips were moving, he was lying. I don't think he told the truth to anybody based on our investigation and based on everybody we've talked to." The 37-year-old Melvin Rowland certainly lied about his age to the 21-year-old McCluskey, as well as his sex offender status. When McCluskey discovered the lies upon their month-long relationship was built, she broke things off.

But Rowland didn't take that too well. He apparently had friends contact McCluskey, saying he was dead and it was all her fault. She reported the messages to University of Utah Police, as well as Rowland's social media posts to the contrary and her belief that his friends were trying to lure her out of her dorm room. (As it turns out, this social media activity violated his sex offender probation.) McCluskey again contacted university police to reports messages extorting $1,000 from her in exchange for a promise not to post explicit photos of her online.

According to a brutal timeline of the last weeks, days, and hours of McCluskey's life, campus police did not begin a formal investigation of sextortion charges against Rowland until a week after McCluskey made the allegations. Officers also didn't find her body in the campus parking lot where Rowland shot her to death until an hour and a half after her father reported her mother overheard her assault on the phone.

Campus police then sent out a secure-in-place alert for the school, warning that an active shooter was on campus, over an hour after Rowland had already left campus, having called a woman he met on a dating site for a ride, accompanying her to dinner, visiting the state capitol, and showering in her apartment. By the time campus police realized Rowland had left campus, Salt Lake City officers were only 60 minutes from following him into a church where he fatally shot himself.

Murder Liability

While it is easy to see campus and local police were little or no help to McCluskey in the final days of her life, finding them liable for her death may prove more difficult. As a general rule, police do not have a legal duty to investigate all suspected or even all reported crimes. Sadly, courts have recognized a "fundamental principle that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen."

And while McCluskey's parents could file a wrongful death claim against either agency, claiming their negligence in investigating their daughter's claims or Rowland's ongoing criminal behavior caused Lauren's death, government officials (including police officers) are often granted qualified immunity from civil liability for actions taken while on duty unless they were on notice that their conduct violated established law.

Federal law can hold state, local, and campus officers liable if they subject any citizen to "the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." But even these claims are generally based on the use of excessive force or denial of care while in custody -- not the failure to investigate or prosecute crimes, or detail specific individuals.

Tragically, it's hard to hold police agencies or officers accountable for injuries or deaths, even when it appears obvious that they failed to act when warned of a potential danger. But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Contact an experienced injury attorney for help.

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