UT Police Department officers reflect on year since on-campus murder

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Photo Credit: Luisa Santos | Videographer

For the UT Police Department officers on duty the day dance freshman Haruka Weiser’s body was found in Waller Creek, the one-year anniversary of her death brings up strong memories of responding to the first on-campus homicide in 50 years.

“Police officers are not robots, and they have feelings just like everybody else,” said UTPD Assistant Chief Don Verett, who was on duty the day Weiser’s body was found. “When things like that happen, I personally think about my own children, and one can’t help but be emotionally involved.”

Weiser was reported missing on April 4, 2016, after failing to return home from a dance rehearsal the previous evening. On April 5, her body was found in Waller Creek and triggered the first on-campus homicide investigation since the UT Tower shooting in 1966. The 10 to 12 officers, both young and old, who first responded to the scene of Weiser’s body were all affected by the event, Verett said.

“For some of the younger officers, being around a dead body can be very traumatic … because we don’t have very many (traumatic incidents) on campus,” Verett said.

Last June, homeless teen Meechaiel Criner was indicted on capital murder in connection to Weiser’s death. The two-page indictment accused Criner of sexually assaulting Weiser and killing her by strangulation with “a ligature, a deadly weapon,” as well as other offenses Criner is alleged to have committed during the crime. Since the crime scene showed signs of this violence, Weiser’s death had a significant impact on the officers who responded to the scene, Verett said. 

While Verett said the department responds to a wide range of crimes in the campus area, including traumatic scenes like suicides and car accidents, violent crimes such as Weiser’s death are rare. 

“In Haruka’s case, we don’t have a track record,” UTPD Chief David Carter said. “It’s been 50 years since there was a murder on campus, and hopefully there’s not one ever again. Obviously, it shook the community.” 

After Weiser’s death, UTPD provided critical incident and stress debriefing, a form of counseling offered to officers during the initial 48 to 72 hours after a traumatic incident occurs. 

“A lot of time when you respond to a traumatic scene … you have to block it off to a certain extent to get the job done, and it’s usually a little bit afterwards where it’ll hit you,” Verett said. “We have trained professionals come in and say, ‘Those feelings you’re having are justifiable.’ Police officers want to feel that they’re strong and they don’t need any help, but everybody needs somebody to talk to.”

Verett said the incident reminded all officers in the department that college campuses are not necessarily exempt from violent crime. 

“It was just a terrible tragedy not only for the Weiser family, but for the greater UT community,” Verett said. “Any time something like that happens, it makes people feel vulnerable, and realize it can happen anywhere. And even though you may know intellectually that anything can happen anywhere, it kind of shatters people’s feeling of safety.”