By Corinne Murdock |
On Monday, the University of Arizona (UArizona) chief of police stepped down in apparent relation to the professor slaying last year. UArizona President Robert Robbins issued the announcement.
Now-former University of Arizona Police Department (UAPD) Chief Paula Balafas has grappled with a sect of the university community advocating for stronger safety protocols on campus following the murder of Professor Thomas Meixner.
Balafas criticized a report from an independent committee formed by faculty members, the General Faculty Committee on University Safety For All Informed Faculty, stating that the university leaders were “stronger than their critics.”
The committee’s 30-page interim report, issued in January, claimed that UArizona was endangered by a “glaring institutional failure” concerning disregard for employee and student safety concerns.
Meixner was shot fatally by a former UArizona graduate student.
The independent faculty committee disbanded in March, expressing fears of retaliation from university officials. Around that time, the university released its own external safety report. The report by the PAX Group detailed three systemic issues: understanding and managing threats, providing a consistent and compassionate response, and the decentralization of communications.
The PAX Group reported finding a steady increase in violent crime and criminal activity beginning in 2018, with a peak in violent activity last year. The group further noted that UArizona measures handling crime were comparable to those employed by Arizona State University (ASU), despite ASU having 15,000 more students. Yet last year, UArizona suffered nearly 20 more incidents of aggravated assault and violent crime combined than ASU.
“Although the campus is relatively safe, the data on violent crime and related activity is heading in the wrong direction; so, as a community, the University of Arizona must address this,” stated the report.
In all, the report issued 33 recommendations to improve campus safety.
Robbins announced at the time of the external report’s issuance that Steve Patterson, a 25-year FBI veteran, would take over as the interim chief safety officer. Patterson was scheduled to begin on Monday. Robbins also announced the creation of a Campus Safety Advisory Commission made up of university and community members to advise Patterson, and the inclusion of the PAX Group in crafting a campus-wide master facility safety plan.
Replacing Balafas in the interim will be Oro Valley Police Department commander Chris Olson. He formerly served as a UAPD officer.
Balafas joined UArizona just over a year ago, in February 2022. UArizona noted that she represented the first female chief of police in university history. Balafas explained in an interview shortly after her hire, and several months before Meixner’s death, that she was drawn to UArizona’s focus on a progressive approach to policing.
“[T]he way the job description for UAPD had been presented was that they were looking for someone who is really good at building community within the police department but also outside of the police department, someone who is open to change who’d been in a progressive environment,” said Balafas.
Balafas also advocated for the implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusivity training. She lamented that officers weren’t as welcome in certain areas on campus, namely multicultural centers.
Balafas wasn’t the only faculty member to depart. Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Liesl Folks also stepped down, though she won’t depart until the end of this semester.