Feds to help Salt Lake City police fight spike in violent crime

Police Chief Mike Brown blames the “revolving door” in county jails for the rise in crime. But advocates for criminal justice reform say the issue is more complicated.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown — photographed in September — announced Tuesday that the department is partnering with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Marshals Service, as well as the state’s Department of Public Safety, to combat rising crime in Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake City Police Department has asked federal law enforcement to help stop an uptick in violent crimes and property crimes.

Police Chief Mike Brown said at a Tuesday news conference that the department is enlisting the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Marshals Service, as well as the state’s Department of Public Safety, to arrest people accused of “high-risk, top-tier” crimes with the aim of keeping those people in jail longer so they can’t re-offend. He said that due to bail reform and efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, people who would otherwise be in jail longer are being released early.

The theory, said Matt Harris, Utah’s U.S. Marshal, is that a small percentage of criminals are committing a large number of crimes. If you keep those people in jail and prosecute them, crime will go down, he said at the news conference.

Bringing in federal police to help lower crime and bring those cases into the federal court system was used recently in Ogden. U.S. Attorney John Huber said that because of it, crime is down in the city significantly.

However, advocates for criminal justice reform told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday that SLCPD’s explanation for the rise in crime was too simple. It doesn’t take into consideration the broader impacts of the pandemic, they say, such as economic uncertainty, and added that arresting some of these high-level offenders won’t solve the city’s crime problem.

SLCPD data shows that violent crime increased 21% through 2020, compared to the year before, and was up more than 9% when compared to the five-year average. Property crimes were also up compared to 2019, but had decreased by nearly 3% compared to the five-year average.

The Salt Lake City Police Department’s new partnership with the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office is the second step in the department’s plan to curb rising year-over-year crime. Officials announced in late December that they were adding nearly 40 more officers on to patrol shifts.

About half of those officers are fresh out of the academy, while the rest are detectives being moved to patrol. With that shift, the department said the caseloads for its remaining investigators would increase and they might be slower solving crimes.

Brown said Tuesday that with federal help to arrest some “apex criminals,” caseloads for detectives should decrease.

He said that often his officers will arrest someone on suspicion of felony-level crimes and they’ll be out of jail within days or hours because of the county jail’s coronavirus response, and also because of “bail reform and no-bail issues.”

“This happens frequently enough that these repeat offenders have become known to our officers by name,” he said. “These offenders know there is no accountability for their criminal behavior.”

A spokesman said the police department’s plan was drafted in response to a series of recent criminal justice reforms around bail, including HB206, which went into effect in October.

HB206 requires judges to consider an arrested person’s ability to pay bond in addition to their potential to cause harm when assigning their bail amount. Previously, judges operated using a rubric that gave guidelines for bail amounts based on the alleged offense. The system was criticized because it often allowed the wealthy to be released from jail, no matter the severity of their offense. Those without money had to stay in jail, critics say, even when accused of minor crimes.

The Salt Lake County jail data dashboard shows that 80% of those held in jail as of Tuesday have not been convicted of a crime. The average stay for the 1,137 people in jail who haven’t been sentenced is 168 days.

HB206 added to previous reforms, including a 2018 change that allowed judges to consider a person’s history when setting bail, such as whether someone has skipped court in the past or has a history of violent offenses.

To make his point about bail, Brown pointed to one “revolving door” case where a person was arrested — mostly on suspicion of felony-level theft and burglary — and released eight times last year between April and their ninth arrest in November.

Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, said that “is a classic example of what was wrong with the prior system” and was corrected after October when the law went into effect.

Once prosecutors filed a motion to detain the person, under the provisions in the bill she sponsored, the judge agreed and he remained in jail.

Steve Burton, an attorney and executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that the system put in place by HB206 should have flagged this example offender as high-risk, based on the man allegedly reoffending while having another pending case, and kept him in jail.

Burton said that the problem of increasing crime in Salt Lake City is not enough funding for treatment and resources outside of jail.

So, he said, when criminal justice reforms are passed based on research and data, and yet crime goes up instead of down, it means those reforms didn’t receive enough investment — not that they don’t work or are causing more problems.

An October audit of the state’s 2014 Justice Reinvestment Initiative said as much.

“Utah has not achieved all the goals of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) because the initiative was not fully implemented,” the audit said. “Although Utah made changes to its sentencing guidelines, which led to a drop in the state’s prison population, features of JRI designed to provide strong alternatives to incarceration were not implemented.”

Another issue, Burton said: “I think one of the main problems is that [the law] has been interpreted vastly differently from one judge to another, from one court to another.”

This means, he said, that some judges have taken an individualized approach to bail, while others still adhere to what is effectively still a bail guidelines rubric.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in cases where police have made clear to prosecutors that they believe an offender is high-risk and should be kept in jail, judges have typically agreed.

He said the man SLCPD mentioned during the news conference was taken into custody in November when prosecutors learned about officers’ concerns and remains there.

Gill said after SLCPD’s Tuesday announcement that he was happy the U.S. Attorney’s Office would be taking up more cases, but added that “it is too simplistic to throw in the towel and blame the jail and bail reform for historical neglect and situational reality of a pandemic.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah also pushed back on SLCPD’s claim that releasing inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic led to any changes in crime rates. An attorney for the group, Jason Groth, said in a statement that the bail reform statute, which went into effect in October, also couldn’t be responsible for the increase.

Moreover, the collateral damage from Operation Rio Grande shows that promises by law enforcement to target only dangerous individuals in sweeping operations often end up destroying the lives of people experiencing crisis as well as disproportionately harming communities of color,” Groth said.

While SLCPD officers are typically equipped with body cameras, bringing in more federal agents could mean that more arrests are being made by officers not wearing cameras, since Department of Justice policy prohibits them. Also, while SLCPD has suspended using K-9s in arrests, because of a pending investigation into allegations of misconduct, these federal task forces could, and have, used dogs in Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake City Police Department set goals on Tuesday to reduce overall crime in the Salt Lake City by 10%, violent crime by 5% and property crime by 10%.

To help accomplish those goals, Brown said that the department would work with state DPS agents to crack down on street racing, an activity he said had led to shootings, assaults and drug use, and has had a negative impact on the community. He said the U.S. Marshals have been brought in to arrest people with outstanding warrants and on suspicion of federal gun offenses. And the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he said, has agreed to prosecute many of these cases at the federal level.

“Make no mistake,” Brown said, “we are united to bring criminals to justice and to bring justice for those that have been victimized. If you commit a crime in Salt Lake City, we will do everything in our power to hold you accountable.”