Utah property crime spiked in 2020, exceeding the national average. Experts aren’t sure why.

“It affects us as a community and affects individuals,” one expert said of property crime, including car thefts and home burglaries.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police display stolen items that were recovered in a recent burglary ring bust at a news conference in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. FBI data shows that Utah’s rate of property crime is higher than the national average.

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Josh Kivlovitz woke up one morning to a flurry of phone alerts about suspicious credit card activity. He got up to look around, worried something was wrong.

His TV was still in the living room, but the backpack he’d left near it was gone. His two bikes were leaning against his desk, but he didn’t see the laptops he left on top. His wallet wasn’t on the coffee table, and the bowl where he sometimes left his keys was empty. When he looked outside, his car was missing, too.

Kivlovitz, who is a social worker, said he doesn’t resent whoever took his things because he assumes they needed them. They also stole a hat and sweater, he said.

“I was a convenient target. I forgot to lock my door; I have things of value in my one-bedroom apartment that were easy to access,” he said. “It makes sense to me that this was something that happened.”

FBI data shows that Utah’s rate of property crime is higher than the national average. And while reports of property crime in Utah and nationwide trended downward in the last decade, Utah’s numbers jumped in 2020.

Experts who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune couldn’t say why.

Michelle Jeffs, an associate criminal justice professor at Weber State University, said property crimes generally aren’t pre-planned. Thieves strike when they find an easy target, like Kivlovitz’s unlocked door or an unattended package.

Kivlovitz viewed his home’s burglary and other thefts like it as a byproduct of Utah system failures, including skyrocketing rent prices and a dearth of mental health and substance misuse treatment. Substance misuse, poverty and peer pressure — especially for teenagers — can drive these crimes, Jeffs said.

University of Utah law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman said an appropriate police presence can deter property crime.

“So in short,” Baughman said, “the reason why Utah’s property crime rates might be higher than other states is because we do not have enough police presence to act as a deterrent for crime.”

Property crimes also are often lower priority cases for police, since no one is typically in imminent danger. Police make fewer arrests in such cases compared to violent crimes, data shows.

Salt Lake City police spokesperson Michael Ruff said that’s because there’s often less evidence, such as blood, clear video footage or witnesses. And without evidence, a case can’t go forward in court, Jeffs, a former Weber County Attorney’s Office prosecutor, said.

What the data shows

In 2020, Utah reported 111,321 property crimes — up 11.8% from the year prior. Larcenies and thefts alone increased by more than 12%, according to the Department of Public Safety’s annual crime report.

The spike seemed to be fueled by a significant jump in car-related thefts, data shows.

According to DPS summary reporting data, vehicle theft reports surged from 5,872 in 2019 to 7,921 in the next year — a 35% increase.

Reports of people stealing from cars — or car parts and accessories, including catalytic converters — also increased significantly in Utah compared to 2019, federal crime data shows.

Mandy Biesinger, a field service supervisor with the Department of Public Safety, said the agency doesn’t draw conclusions on the police data it collects annually to send to the federal government and compile in Utah’s yearly crime report.

But Biesinger said some property offenses did stick out to her in 2020 — car thefts, and a 40.7% increase in arson offenses in 2020, which she attributed to civil unrest that summer.

“We know that that was kind of a weird thing in 2020,” she said. “But if I was law enforcement, I would be paying attention to that statistic, though. And for 2021, I would want to see that going down. I wouldn’t want that to be the new norm.”

The data only captures the crimes that get reported though.

Sometimes, people don’t tell police they’ve been victimized. That’s especially true for victims of property crime, Salt Lake City police Detective Joshua Ashdown said in November.

For instance, according to bike enthusiasts — and online bike registries — 2020 was a record year for bike thefts. Yet DPS data shows bike thefts have been steadily declining since 2016.

Investigation limitations

Kivlovitz, the social worker, said he didn’t want to call police when his things were stolen, but his insurance claim required a police report. Kivlovitz felt conflicted because he’s also an organizer with the prison abolitionist group Decarcerate Utah.

“I was hopeful that maybe (with) this experience, I could recognize that there are some (police) functions that are working,” he said, “and that was not what happened for me.”

Police did find his car parked within walking distance of his apartment. But even though security camera footage captured video of a man using his stolen credit cards, and Kivlovitz tracked his laptop to an apartment complex, officers never located his other stolen items.

“They had a picture of the guy, and they had a potential location of where the laptop was, but still nothing came out of it,” he said. “Or if it did, nobody told me.”

Ruff, the SLCPD spokesperson, said tracking apps and devices can give police an idea of where a cell phone or computer is, but they also may show the item in a house where it isn’t.

Officers also can’t get inside without a resident’s permission or a warrant, and he said judges aren’t likely to sign a warrant based on a tracking app alone.

“All I can do is knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, this individual says their phone was stolen and it’s showing them it’s in your house.’ And if they say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got it,’ (that’s) great,” Ruff said. “But if they don’t, what are the chances that that phone’s ever going to be seen again? It’s pretty slim.”

Can property crime lead to more crime?

Biesinger said data doesn’t show a link between property crime and violent crime. But it’s easy to see how they could be connected.

If someone opens an unlocked car door, finds a gun and takes it, that’s a property crime. If that gun is later used in a robbery — or to shoot someone — that’s a violent crime. One of those scenarios happened in Salt Lake County last April.

A man shot at two sheriff’s deputies with a gun that police later learned was stolen about a month prior. One of those deputies lost an eye, while law enforcement returned fire and killed the man.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill held a joint press conference in October urging gun owners to lock up their guns to avoid similar crimes.

DPS data doesn’t indicate that stolen guns are driving Utah’s increase in property crime. But gun thefts in the state are persistent.

There have been 900 or more gun thefts in Utah each year since 2016. Gun sales also broke records in 2020 — the same year Utah reported increases in burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.

FBI data shows homicides involving firearms in Utah have almost tripled since 2011.

Last week, Unified Police Department investigators, led by Rivera, busted a burglary ring.

Deputy Chief Justin Hoyal said police began investigating after a theft report in Holladay. Police ultimately recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of apparently stolen merchandise — skis, bikes, tools, dental equipment, luggage, an old Cabbage Patch doll — from three storage units and a home in the Salt Lake Valley.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Unified Police Department Deputy Chief Justin Hoyal presents stolen items that were recovered in a recent burglary ring bust at a news conference in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. FBI data shows that Utah’s rate of property crime is higher than the national average.

Hoyal said this bust was the biggest in recent memory, but it wasn’t representative of most property crimes.

“This is obviously very targeted,” he said. “This individual had plans for what he was doing.”

The man police suspect is responsible got away before officers served a warrant — in a stolen car, Hoyal said. Among the thousands of items seized: multiple guns.

Deterrence and better data

Baughman, the University of Utah professor, said unlike violent crime — which isn’t “deterred” by a police presence but “deferred” until police leave — more police officers or security guards in an area have been shown to reduce property crime.

Police across the country reported low staffing numbers in 2020. SLCPD was down more than 60 officers last June and earlier that year moved detectives off their normal beats to help fill patrol shifts.

Ruff said detectives have since resumed their normal duties, and Police Chief Mike Brown said at a Feb. 8 City Council meeting that his department was now down just 38 positions.

But Baughman said more staffing isn’t necessarily the answer to this problem. Instead, she said officers need to spend more time preventing and solving crime.

Jeffs remembered victims of relatively minor or impersonal crimes, like vehicle burglary, who still feel bitter about what happened years later. Some lost jobs. Many feel uncomfortable in their homes, afraid the perpetrator will return. And they never got their stuff back.

“I think sometimes people who commit property crimes don’t see the impact. They just assume that either the retail establishment can cover the loss or the person they’re stealing from is going to be just fine,” Jeffs said. “But whatever it is, it affects us as a community and affects individuals when property crime occurs.”

Baughman said in her research that a reason poor communities and communities of color often distrust police is because they don’t believe law enforcement will help them.

“When people do not trust police to solve crime, knowing that they have not solved crimes they have witnessed, they will refuse to report crimes to police,” she said, “and then police continue to be unable to solve serious crimes because of lack of witness participation.”

She said police should work to understand why communities may not be reporting crime, which could build relationships and trust, and lead to more reports.

Then, better crime data could lead to more effective policing, she said.