Loud talking permeated Arianna Rees’ basement late Sept. 25. About 100 people were spilling out from a nearby house party, she realized as she went upstairs around 11:30 p.m.
Dozens of parked cars lined her narrow Sugar House street. Other vehicles sped down it, she recalled, with passengers hanging out of windows. It seemed dangerous, Rees said. Her roommate called police.
Thirty minutes later, it was “getting bad enough” that Rees worried officers hadn’t taken the call seriously. So she called police, too.
Nearly 30 more minutes passed. She went outside. The party near the 2200 block of South Broadmoor Street was louder now.
“You could hear swearing. You could hear shouting,” Rees said. “And then within seconds of us walking outside, someone was shooting.”
Aaron Lowe, a University of Utah football player, was killed in the shooting. An unidentified woman was critically wounded, police said. As of Thursday, no arrests have been made.
Salt Lake City police had received six noise complaints about the party between 10:38 p.m. and 12:02 a.m., but officers never responded. It wasn’t until just before 12:20 a.m., when someone reported a fight involving a weapon, that police headed that way.
They arrived in the area at 12:25 a.m. Lowe was pronounced dead shortly after 12:30 a.m. Rees sat outside her house, trying to process what happened.
“The lights are flashing in my neighborhood, and everything’s taped off, and all I can think about,” she said, “is this man would have been alive had someone listened to our calls and come.”
The average officer response time for a loud party or other noise complaint is an hour and 19 minutes, Salt Lake City police spokesperson Brent Weisberg said. The average response time to a “priority one” call — which can involve serious or life-threatening injury — is more than 17.5 minutes, police data shows. The department in a statement Thursday said that figure may be inflated due to an analysis error, noting that officials have initiated “an exhaustive administrative and confirmatory review on the underlying data.”
“The Salt Lake City Police Department takes this matter seriously,” the statement continued. “We recognize the importance of having accurate data and know the community trusts us to provide the most comprehensive data.”
In 2018, Salt Lake City police were responding to prioritized police calls in just over six minutes, according to a City Council budget report.
Though officials contest the latest average response time reflected in police data, the understaffed Salt Lake City Police Department has struggled to respond to even its most prioritized calls quickly, city officials and police sources have said. At the same time, the number of calls for service has increased, along with citywide rates of violent, property and weapons-related crimes.
“[The response times are] wholly unacceptable. I am frustrated, as I stated weeks ago at a press conference,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said. “The chief is frustrated, our officers are frustrated. They are busting their butts to do the best work they can for our residents.”
Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, said the fatal Sept. 26 shooting — which unfolded hours after the Utes’ homecoming win against Washington State — represents a failure over the past year for Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown and Mendenhall to address officer vacancies and the crime increase.
“It’s gotten worse and worse and worse, and continues to worsen,” Adams said, “And now we’re starting to see one example of a tragedy. But there will be others. There have been others. And until we get a solution on the table — until we get an admission there’s even a problem — we’re not going to do anything but just continue to go downhill.”
The problem isn’t unique to Salt Lake City. Cities nationwide have lost officers as violent crimes have increased. The FBI recorded the largest single-year jump in homicides since the bureau began keeping track in the 1960s, The New York Times reported.
Brown and Mendenhall tapped the U.S. Marshals Service for help in January to try to curb crime. Mendenhall said earlier this month that federal authorities had charged 127 people as part of the partnership.
The issue of officer vacancies has been discussed in City Council meetings and news conferences, Mendenhall said. Those discussions led to the largest pay increase for law enforcement in city history, announced in summer. But finances are only one part of the problem — the state is down about 600 to 700 officers as a whole amid rapid population growth.
“We were hemorrhaging police officers,” Mendenhall said. “This kind of myopic finger-pointing is completely missing the elephant in the room, which is that this is a national crisis. It’s a statewide crisis.”
Fewer officers, more crimes
Total crimes are up 2.5% year-to-date in Salt Lake City, and crimes are up 2.8% year-to-date compared to a five-year average, according to police data.
Violent crime in particular is up 10% year-to-date and 16.3% from the five-year, year-to-date average. Weapon-related crimes also have spiked. Data shows 512 such crimes reported this year, compared to 419 this time last year and 366, according to the five-year, year-to-date average.
Meanwhile, the Salt Lake City Police Department is short 55 officers. About 40 recruits are currently in the police academy, but they won’t be able to respond to calls until they complete their training — either in January or June, depending on the cohort. Around 66 other officers stationed with the department’s airport division can’t take city calls for service, either.
“I mean you have to start somewhere, and we’re moving right along,” Brown said at a Sept. 21 City Council meeting, discussing the department’s hiring efforts. “We’re going as fast as we can.”
The night Lowe was fatally shot, Weisberg, the police spokesperson, said officers couldn’t respond to the six noise complaints about the party because they were busy with other, more serious calls.
Most noise complaints come in between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. From Sept. 1 through Monday, people reported noise complaints to police 272 times, data shows.
The night of the shooting, between 10:40 p.m. and 12:20 a.m., Salt Lake City dispatchers received 78 calls. Those calls included five fights, three reports of domestic violence, three reports of shots fired, a suicide threat and seven noise complaints, according to police.
“Our officers, when they are aware of a noise complaint, it is dispatched out, they are told about it,” Weisberg said Monday, “and as they can respond to those noise complaints, they do.”
The No. 1 focus, however, is “in-progress emergencies,” Weisberg said.
“I suspect that were it not for that house party turning into a homicide,” Adams said of Lowe’s slaying, “police wouldn’t have been able to respond until the party had cleared later in the evening, simply because the officers on the street are trying to respond to already serious calls.”
Still, when Rees called police that night, she expected them to show up more quickly.
“I guess that there is just this expectation that if you call (police), and if you’re worried about a situation going out of control, then someone is going to come and they’re going to help you as soon as they can,” Rees said, “And, in this instance, as soon as they can ended up being like an hour after my roommate called.”
Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who now works at the Center for Policing Equity, said the amount of calls placed about the party should have elicited a faster response, especially if dispatchers were getting calls from multiple people in different households. Rees said she purposefully placed her subsequent call away from her address, so dispatchers would understand the calls weren’t coming from a single aggrieved neighbor.
“We need more people who are interested in coming into this line of work,” Mendenhall said of policing. “And that’s a fact that departments across the state, and unfortunately across the country, are all facing.”
How to fix it
Aside from hiring more officers, Burbank said the department should consider changing how it assigns and dispatches the officers it already has.
Instead of having officers issue traffic citations, for instance, the department could explore parking an empty patrol car near roadways — or the city could consider adding speed bumps — to deter speeding, he said.
City Council member Darin Mano said that part of the issue is that communities have put “far too much responsibility on the police department’s shoulders.”
“They’ve become the backstop for any kind of public safety problem in our community,” he said, “and we really need to diversify the responses.”
The city this year allocated $1 million to hire 12 more social workers to help police respond to mental health crises. Leaders also put $2 million toward creating a “civilian response model” that would send civilians on calls traditionally handled by police that don’t necessitate an officer response, said Mano, who represents District 5, which encompasses the Ballpark, Central Ninth, East Liberty Park and Liberty Wells neighborhoods.
Mendenhall said one of the fastest options to reduce police response times is to reduce call volume, since 911 has received about 1,300 more calls for service this year than dispatchers did five years ago.
To address this, the city is working on a call-diversion program that would rehire former police officers to help field calls for service that may not need an in-person officer response, something that stems from a department audit commissioned by the City Council.
“The reality is that even if every open officer slot in Salt Lake City was filled before last weekend,” Mendenhall said, “we still probably would not have had an officer to break up that party, because we had 78 calls for service during just actually that window of that night.”
A 2018 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police called for an additional 149 new Salt Lake City officers, with 133 dedicated to patrol. But it also noted the department could reallocate its current officers’ assignments to “reduce the number of new positions needed.”
“There absolutely will be further action to improve our call response times,” Mendenhall said. “I take this very seriously; no one should have to wait 17 minutes for an officer to respond to a ‘[priority] one’ need. My team is laser-focused on this and working with Chief Brown on solutions to bring these numbers back into order as quickly as possible.”
Who’s most impacted?
Police data shows that council Districts 2, 4, and 5 have felt the brunt of the uptick in crime. Those districts include parts of Salt Lake City’s west side, including Glendale and Poplar Grove, as well as parts of downtown, Liberty Wells and the Ballpark neighborhoods.
Ana Valdemoros, District 4′s City Council representative, said in a statement that she was “extremely disappointed at the current situation.”
”Our budget increases and efforts to hire additional quality officers and provide a new social worker response model have not been able to work as fast as I would have liked due to the labor shortage,” Valdemoros said, “and this is just a fact we have to deal with.”
It’s also disappointing, she said, to work on solutions but not see them take shape more quickly — “and still hear of the experiences that neighbors have with crime.”
“Are (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities and traditionally marginalized neighborhoods less squeaky in terms of bringing up issues and problems that may exist in their community?” Mano said. “I think that’s 100% of the case. And I think because of that, a lot of wealthier communities have gotten better service from their city. And, to me, that’s something that needs to stop and change.”
He mentioned that the city in May hired a chief equity officer, Kaletta Lynch. Her job exists to address inequities in the city, like access to food, affordable housing and public transportation.
But those are long-term solutions to a problem affecting residents today.
Rees’ neighborhood has mostly returned to normal since the fatal shooting. Children play outside, and dog walkers pass a makeshift memorial for Lowe. But she is still reeling.
There’s the trauma of hearing gunshots, followed by the panicked screams of people running away. There’s devastation for Lowe and his family. Anger at whoever killed him. And the guilt.
Maybe she could have done more to convey the urgency of the situation to the dispatcher, Rees wonders. Maybe officers would have come sooner. And, maybe, she said, Lowe would still be alive.