The Salt Lake City Police Department is adding nearly 40 new officers to patrol shifts to try to curb the increase in violent and property crime.
Violent crime had increased more than 20% from Jan. 1, and property crimes are up 24%, according to statistics the Salt Lake City Police Department reports on its website. Numbers now are about where they were in 2016, but after trending downward recently, officials say they’re concerned about the rise, which they attributed, in large part, to the pandemic.
The department announced the first step Wednesday to address the spike in crime — getting more officers on the streets.
Salt Lake City police spokesman Sgt. Keith Horrocks said the department was most concerned with the increase in homicides (up to 14 from the 5-year average of 10.8), family aggravated assaults (up to 273 from the 5-year average of 190), in addition to increases in car burglaries and stolen vehicles.
“These are all notable issues. As a police department our goal is to see a continual steady decrease. We have been lucky to have seen that in recent years,” he said, “but overall there are some real key points of concern in the data.”
The department will add 18 new officers to patrol and move over 20 others who previously worked in other areas, according to a news release. The department has also changed protocols to allow officers who don’t normally respond to 911 calls to go when needed.
Those 20 officers will be reassigned from detective roles, which Horrocks said, would mean the remaining detectives would have to take on more cases.
Horrocks said the move back to patrol for many of these detectives is “probably not their first choice, because their first choice is where they’re currently at,” but he said they realize the goal “first and foremost” is to be responsive to 911 calls.
“Patrol is the backbone of the police department. When someone has to call 911, they expect the police to get there and get there quickly,” Police Chief Mike Brown said in a statement. “Responding to calls for service is the primary function of a police department and will continue to be our focus.”
In addition to improving response time, the department says the additional officers will “provide more proactive, visible community-based policing to every corner of the city.”
Horrocks said the hope is that with more officers, someone working patrol won’t have to go from “call to call to call to call” during a shift and will have more time to look for crimes happening. An officer’s presence could also deter crime, he said.
Salt Lake City Council member Darin Mano, who represents an area of the city that’s seen a big increase in crime, said he was happy with SLCPD’s announcement. Mano represents the Ballpark, Central Ninth, East Liberty Park and Liberty Wells neighborhoods.
“I know that the concerns are well-founded,” the councilman said, “and I’m really grateful that the mayor and police chief are taking them seriously.”
More officers on the streets, however, will certainly lead to more police interaction with people experiencing homelessness, American Civil Liberties Union of Utah spokesman Jason Stevenson said.
Stevenson pointed to the unintended consequences of Operation Rio Grande, a safety and social services campaign focused on Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless population. Police went out with the stated mission of nabbing the “worst of the worst” but ultimately “what they ended up doing was going after anybody they could catch,” Stevenson said, and that burdened those people with fines they couldn’t pay, as well as hampered the criminal justice system with so many cases.
“So [the outcome of this move] depends on how the police are deployed and how they are trained and what is expected of them,” Stevenson said.
During the operation, many homeless people were cited and arrested for low-level offenses, like camping, jaywalking and open-container violations. But even nonviolent misdemeanors, if ignored, can lead to arrest warrants that serve as barriers to accessing services and housing and to landing jobs — the very things that help people exit homelessness.
Mano said he, too, was concerned about the impact the extra officers might have on unsheltered people, but he hoped the city’s other efforts, such as the forthcoming recommendations from the City Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, would help mitigate the systemic issues that lead to homelessness.
Horrocks said the next step in addressing the uptick in crime has a lot to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. Horrocks said that officers don’t believe that some alleged offenders are being held responsible for crimes and are reoffending.
“If an offender is not being held in jail or held accountable for whatever they’re doing,” Horrocks said, “they’re free to do that behavior, right?”
Because of the pandemic, many county jails released nonviolent inmates or didn’t book people accused of nonviolent crimes, and the courts are bogged down with a growing backlog of cases because of delays earlier in the year and the suspension of jury trials.
Stevenson pushed back on the idea that coronavirus jail releases led to the increase in crime. He pointed to an ACLU study.
The analysis found that the lower jail populations in February through April was “functionally unrelated” to crime trends in March through April and that in many instances, the crime rate actually decreased.
The ACLU wrote that, ”We don’t have to choose between public safety and public health. Reducing jail populations saves lives, and these reductions must continue.”