West Valley balks at joining Unified Police Department
As West Valley City officials continue their nationwide search for a new chief to steer their troubled police department, Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder has a different idea:
Why not join his instead?
The sheriff argues Utah's second most-populous city could right its law-enforcement ship quicker and save some cash at the same time by signing on with the Unified Police Department (UPD).
But West Valley officials say their city is too big (132,000 residents), their police department too large (225 strong) and their investment too deep (a $21.6 million operating budget alone) to switch badges now.
"The feeling of the council is 'no way,' " Councilman Don Christensen said.
Besides, City Manager Wayne Pyle said, such a move would go against a key reason the city incorporated in the first place in 1980 to provide its own vital services instead of counting on the county.
"Nobody's going to take care of West Valley's needs the way it wants," Pyle said, "except West Valley."
Winder said he had informally discussed with West Valley officials the benefits of joining the UPD even before the city's police department came under investigation for problems involving the now-disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
Both Winder and Pyle say the talks have stopped and that no merger looms on the horizon although the sheriff holds out hope.
"The window of opportunity still exists for the Unified Police Department and West Valley to join in some fashion to support their new direction," Winder said. "The door has not been completely shut."
UPD provides law-enforcement services including patrol officers, SWAT teams, forensics and dispatch to cities and unincorporated areas in the Salt Lake Valley. Each city has its own precinct, retains its police employees when it joins the regional force and can appoint a precinct chief.
Municipalities also can contract for various services while maintaining their own police department.
A board of directors consisting of elected officials from member cities runs the UPD. Winder, who is elected by voters countywide, directs day-to-day operations.
Winder said UPD membership provides flexibility for police personnel, and officers can seek transfers to other precincts. In addition, a precinct chief serves at the discretion of a city's elected officials.
"They can replace their chief of police literally overnight," the sheriff said.
Thanks to economies of scale, cities also can save money by tapping UPD's pooled resources. Winder estimated West Valley City could trim 5 percent to 8 percent from its $21.6 million police budget under UPD.
Longtime Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini said joining UPD in 2011 was a "win-win" for her city, which was spending almost 70 percent of its budget on public safety. Combined with its savings under the Unified Fire Authority, the city, she said, came out ahead almost $2.5 million a year.
UPD membership also brought resources, including a K-9 unit and traffic assistance, that Midvale couldn't have afforded otherwise, Seghini said. "We have not lost anything but we gained a lot."
Pyle doubts West Valley could see the same type of gains, noting his city already has its own speciality services, so pooling resources would not save money. And he worries that the decision-making authority of the mayor and City Council members would be diluted if West Valley became just one member of UPD's governing board.
UPD provides good services, Pyle said, but the bottom line is that West Valley City is too large for the agency. And with a population that is 45 percent ethnic minority, the city's needs differ greatly from those of other UPD members.
"When we hire our police officers," he said, "we go out of our way to find candidates with multiple language skills."
Although West Valley is pressing forward with finding a new police chief, UPD will play a part in the effort to improve the city's policing practices.
After deciding not to pursue UPD membership, council members recently opted to form a Police and Public Safety Advancement Task Force, which will study possible collaborations with other law-enforcement agencies and brainstorm ways to improve the department.
UPD is one of the organizations the city will ask for advice.
"Our police force in the 30 years has served our community well, [but] there are agencies out there that can give us ideas," Councilman Corey Rushton said. "Maybe we'll find some synergies."
West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder, who is distantly related to Sheriff Winder, echoed those sentiments.
"Clearly, we'll be looking at UPD and what kind of partnerships we can have there," Mayor Winder said. "We need to be humble enough to be looking at best practices and potential partnerships from other agencies around the valley."
Unified Police Department
The regional police agency serves Copperton, Herriman, Holladay, Kearns, Magna, Midvale, Millcreek, Riverton, southeast communities (White City, Granite West, Willow Canyon, Willow Creek, Sandy Hills) and Taylorsville.
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