Conversations at the ongoing Violent Crimes Conference in Salt Lake City likely include the spike in bank robberies along the Wasatch Front — robberies that are largely fueled by the perpetrators’ addiction to heroin.
"We have seen an uptick of some of the violent crime taking place in and around Salt Lake City. Now, this is not exclusive to Salt Lake City by any means and it’s something we’re seeing across the country, due in large part to the heroin epidemic that we are seeing," said Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank at a news conference in this week.
Burbank’s department hosts more than 200 officers during the crime conference, which began Wednesday with a focus on robbery and robbery prevention, and runs through Friday.
Bank robberies in the Salt Lake Valley rose almost 200 percent from the year before to now, said Adam Quirk, special agent to the FBI, at the news conference. The spike even inspired a summit in February — also held at the Salt Lake City Police Department — to discuss the problem. Salt Lake City alone saw 29 bank robberies in 2013, a big jump from the 10 in 2012. This year has already outpaced 2012 as well, at 16 so far, according to the department.
Tuesday’s news conference took place about two weeks after a large county-wide heroin bust, where Burbank mentioned that about 88 percent of the bank robbery suspects arrested in the past year to year-and-a-half were heroin addicts. Back when Burbank started as a police officer, heroin had a minimal presence; now, it’s the "drug of choice," he said.
"It’s getting pushed here. People are buying. It’s all capitalism, right?" said Matt Evans, who has worked on the Salt Lake City robbery squad for the past two years. "More people are buying it, more people are using it, therefore they’re more desperate. Heroin is a desperate user’s drug… It’s not uncommon for people to spend $1,000 to $5,000 a month just in heroin."
Police catch more than 80 percent of bank robbery suspects. It’s the most cleared violent crime there is, Quirk said.
And yet, there is a spike in bank heists.
"This is not a profitable endeavor, nor is it one they get away with," Burbank said. "But I think that brings us back to where we started from, is you have people who have such a high addiction level to a substance, that that’s driving nonsensical response, almost."
But jail is not the effective response to the addiction problem, Burbank said, echoing the sentiments following the bust two weeks ago. There, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill vouched for a research-based, data-driven approach that embraces treatment, not simply prosecution.
"We need to, as a society, do something about the addiction, the need, the appetite we have — the overwhelming appetite that we have for illicit narcotics," Burbank said Tuesday. "Because as long as there’s a demand, someone will fill that demand, and as long as we have addicts who have to meet that demand that their body places upon them, we will see crime occurring because of that."
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