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After struggles with retention and rising crime, Salt Lake City police see more applicants after promised raises

The department lost more than 60 officers during a chaotic 2020 that brought anti-police protests, a pandemic and more crime.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Salt Lake City police officer gives a thumbs up to protesters marching in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced the raises for officers at the department, which had been struggling to retain and recruit officers after a chaotic year of protests, a pandemic and other struggles.

Last month, the Salt Lake City Police Department was down more than 60 officers. Response times for 911 calls were rising. Violent crime in the city was up too.

Then, on June 25, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenahall announced help was on the way. She and the city council had agreed with police union representatives to raise wages for SLCPD officers so that their salaries were higher than other nearby police agencies in the Salt Lake Valley, like the brand new department about 12 miles away in Taylorsville. The raise amounts to a 30% increase for entry-level officers and a 12% increase for senior-level officers.

In the first 12 days of July, eight officers from other departments have applied to work at SLCPD. More than 50 people have applied for entry-level jobs, Chief Mike Brown said on Tuesday during a city council work session. He told councilors that he’s recently spoken with five other officers who left the department and now want to come back. The department also graduated a class of 20 from their academy.

“That’s not bad for 12 days,” he said.

Brown called it encouraging and a step in the right direction.

After a year of protests, a hiring freeze, a pandemic, an earthquake and rising crime, the news is a welcome relief to the police department — and the Salt Lake City Police Association, who have been raising concerns about SLCPD’s wages for years.

If they’re accepted, it will still take time for those applicants to get trained and ready for work. The hope is that once SLCPD is properly staffed, response times will decrease. The department has said that violent crime may go down too if would-be assailants see more officers on patrol.

“Having the mayor and the city council decide on this raise, It basically tells (officers) that, ‘Yes, we know you have the hardest policing job in the state,” SLCPD spokesman Sgt. Keith Horrocks said. “We know you’re the best trained in the state and you’re being paid at that level.’”

At a news conference announcing the pay increase, Mendenhall called the raises “a bold market adjustment,” meant to “avoid what is becoming a public safety threat to our city.”

New officers fill a need

From January through May police response times lagged.

A chart shared with SLCPD officers at a recent meeting shows average response times increasing from just over 30 minutes in January to almost 49 minutes by May.

Additionally, the police department has reported that violent crime citywide was up 8.5% from this time last year. It’s up nearly 9.2% from the 5-year average.

Year-to-date property crimes have increased by 36%. The 5-year average shows a 31% increase.

Brown and Mendenhall have said the problem of rising crime in the city is so urgent they’ve brought in the U.S. Marshals to help arrest repeat offenders.

The delays and crime increase came as the department was losing officers and having trouble finding new ones for dozens of open positions. Many officers were leaving SLCPD for jobs with less pressure and better pay, often in nearby police departments.

The Salt Lake Police Association estimated in June that 95 officers had left since the protests last May, and the department reported 64 vacancies from the 569 funded, sworn positions.

Last month, the Salt Lake City Police Association shared an article on its Facebook page from Fox News about SLCPD’s retention issues.

“We know that more Officers than what is in this article have left. We know that the few in the academy won’t be able to be on their own till mid winter,” the post read. “What’s the answer? More money? Better working conditions and culture? Maybe a populace who supports their department?”

The post ended by urging supporters to contact the city council and mayor to increase officer salaries.

The raises the mayor announced on June 25 affect firefighters and other union-represented city employees as well as the police.

Mendenhall told reporters when she announced the raises that she knew some wouldn’t be happy with the decision, particularly those who advocated defunding the department, but she said it was the best way to keep residents and visitors safe.

“Decreasing the funding for a department who is already struggling to retain and recruit officers, as it relates to the police department, is an illogical and backwards step,” Mendenhall said. “In order to make changes we need and want together, and just to do the fundamental work of answering the calls for services that this city asks our officers to do, we can’t do that with fewer people.”

While city leaders and the union have agreed to a memorandum of understanding, the raises won’t be official until they are approved and added to the city budget. That will likely take place sometime after a public comment session at the June 20 meeting, according to the work session agenda.

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