Ballpark residents inundated by crime feel unsafe, unheard by Salt Lake City leaders

Community members are working together toward solutions, but as one said, “I already have a job.”

Just past the front desk of Alpha Munitions, about a half dozen people sat gathered around a table in the middle of an office.

The bullet parts store is in Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood. On one side of the room, a series of scoped rifles adorned a slate gray wall. On the opposite side, drawing the group’s gaze, was a TV screen and the store’s owner, Bob Danielson.

Danielson has eight security cameras mounted around his property, filming 24/7 and streaming to that screen. He said he does it to protect himself — and others — by keeping tabs on who’s doing what outside his front door, on a tenth-of-a-mile stretch off 300 West called Paramount Avenue.

Clicking the mouse, he searched through his cache of video files, then hit play.

The footage captured a sunny Sunday afternoon — last year’s Fourth of July — around 3:30 p.m. A pair walked up to the barbed wire fence outside his store. One of them, a woman, was holding a machete. The woman tried to climb the fence, the blade tucked into her elbow, but soon came back down, apparently dissuaded by the barbed wire strung along the top.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A security camera mounted outside Alpha Munitions captures a woman holding a machete scaling the fence, just one of many dangerous encounters captured on camera by owner Bob Daniels.

From there, she walked east, toward the Gail R. Miller Homeless Resource Center next door, swinging the machete like a drum major’s baton as she approached security guards at the edge of the shelter property.

“They let the girl with the machete go,” Danielson narrated. “Security just walks away.”

Repercussion came a few hours later. Police said a repeat offender known to have severe mental health issues found the same machete — and allegedly started threatening other shelter residents with it.

Police were called at 9:45 p.m. and arrived four minutes later. But the person was already gone.

Mere minutes from attractions like the world’s biggest Costco, the city’s minor league baseball stadium and an iconic bar and grill serving up burgers some call the best in town, business owners say they often see concerning behavior, like that machete-wielding woman.

Danielson has footage of fights and robberies. Drug use and dealing. Fires. And it’s been like this for years.

“I don’t know why [officials are] just ignoring it,” said Michelle Goldberg, who owns a dog day care across the street from the resource center. “Maybe from their perspective, they’re not. But that’s what it feels like.”

‘Nothing about this is easy or desirable’

When the resource center opened in 2019, city officials gave business owners and residents thousands of dollars to boost security around their properties, but District 5 Councilman Darin Mano said he knew it wasn’t enough — the funds ran out quickly.

Money recently allocated to build affordable and supportive housing — meant to transition those who frequent the shelter out of homelessness — will help, he said, but units won’t be move-in ready for years.

The Mental Health Crisis Care Center in South Salt Lake could make a difference too, Mano said, giving officers an option to take someone who needs help there instead of a jail, where low-level offenders are often let out quickly, if police arrest them at all. But it won’t open until 2024.

Mano doesn’t doubt that some of the neighborhood’s crime problems stem from the resource center — but there’s only so much a city can do to address a problem much larger than Salt Lake City, he said. Area shelters already operate at close-to-capacity each night, and that need will likely grow as the city and state’s population increases.

It’s a problem the city is not prepared to fix. Nor do officials think they alone should be the ones to shoulder the county’s lack of shelter beds and resources, following Operation Rio Grande, which shuttered the city’s 1,100-bed downtown shelter. At a council meeting in March, city officials approved two ordinances that barred building more homeless resource shelters in Salt Lake City until 2023.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demolition begins on the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

City leaders instead called for new ideas, because the model so far — placing smaller shelters at different sites — has not decreased impacts on neighbors: It ostensibly increased them.

”Nothing about this is easy or desirable. Nothing about the continuation of what we’re experiencing now on a seasonal basis is easy or desirable…,” District 1 council member, Victoria Petro-Eschler said at a recent council meeting. “Hitting a pause button and doing the hard work and digging deep is sometimes the only way to get out of negative cycles.”

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, which operates the Gail R. Miller Homeless Resource Center, acknowledged that there’s crime in and outside the shelter. Those using the shelter’s resources are often vulnerable, she said, and people prey on them.

Flynn said the resource center has protocols in place to try to mitigate criminality and work with community members to address problems. In a lot of ways, she sees the center as a community asset.

“I think it’s a real benefit,” she said. “Without having the Gail Miller Resource Center, without having Geraldine King [Resource Center], there would be more people out on the street camping without places to go.”

In other words: The problem could be worse.

A neighborhood with a reputation

The Ballpark neighborhood runs roughly between 900 South and 2100 South and between Interstate 15 and State Street.

Sgt. Nathan Meinzer with Salt Lake City Police Department recently served as Council District 5′s (and therefore Ballpark’s) community liaison officer before his promotion to sergeant.

The area has a reputation. When officers are out looking for crimes, they typically go to a spot called “North Track” — roughly the area of North Temple, west of I-15. Or “South Track,” near Ballpark. Officers know these areas are “concentrated [with] crime, with people that are trying to use or deal drugs, or prostitution,” Meinzer said.

For years — decades even — Meinzer said, the corner of 1300 South and State Street was a problem in particular.

When he took the liaison job last year, his goal was to listen to residents. One of the first concerns? People worried about the crime they saw at the convenience store at that intersection, previously known as Wayne’s Corner, now called Shop N Save.

Videos provided to The Salt Lake Tribune by Daniel Thomas, an attorney who lives nearby, show what appears to be people buying and using drugs in front of and near the convenience store. Some of those videos have been used as evidence to convict people. An attorney who represents the store’s owner did not respond to a request for comment.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In January 2021, Sgt. Allen Christensen wrote an email to Police Chief Mike Brown, Meinzer and others after his team spent the day at “Wayne’s Corner” and arrested someone they saw dealing drugs.

“I want to give a ton of credit to my squad for being able to identify and arrest this individual as he is a frequent dealer in the area,” Christensen wrote, “and hopefully this will give a temporary relief to the community.”

Temporary relief because, Meinzer said, some officers don’t have faith that if they arrest someone, they will stay in jail or be prosecuted.

In that email, Christensen mentioned the man’s modus operandi was “to advise officers that he swallowed his drugs because he knows that the jail wont take him.” He said officers stayed with the man at the hospital “just so we could make sure he was booked into jail.”

The man was ultimately convicted of drug-related crimes and sentenced to about a month behind bars. He was released on probation. A judge issued a warrant for his arrest last month after court records show he stopped attending court-ordered treatment and stopped reporting to his probation officer. He wasn’t in custody as of Tuesday afternoon.

Meinzer said it sometimes feels like the system is set up so that repeat offenders flow in and out of jail. There’s a joke officers tell trainees: “If you didn’t catch him this time, you’ll catch him next time.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Needles and trash litter a tiny gap between buildings next to Alpha Munitions on Thursday, April 7, 2022, along Paramount Avenue in the Ballpark neighborhood.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said the most common reason people are released from jail is through pretrial agreements or judges’ orders — both mechanisms meant to ensure that people accused of low-level offenses aren’t spending an inordinately long amount of time in custody.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office has fought to charge people when prosecutors have evidence of a class A misdemeanor offense or higher. For those accused of violent crimes, he has tried to keep them behind bars as their cases are adjudicated.

“We’ve never shied away from that,” he said.

But for repeat low-level offenders, many of whom seem to have substance misuse or mental health issues, GIll said: “This was a subset of a population that has been the most difficult and nobody’s ever wanted to deal with.”

Living in Ballpark

In fall 2017, state police descended on the Pioneer Park area of downtown Salt Lake City to crack down on crime and homelessness as part of the $67-million Operation Rio Grande.

The increased police presence pushed people experiencing homelessness out of downtown and into other parts of the city, including the Ballpark neighborhood about a mile south. Two years later, Gail R. Miller Homeless Shelter opened.

Thomas said that’s when others who live and work in Ballpark started seeing “exactly what I had been seeing front row for years.” He feels like he can’t give up on the neighborhood and leave. He also acknowledged that staying there, he might end up dead, like his neighbor Wanyun Judd, who was killed in her home 2018. She was the apparent accidental victim of a drive-by shooting, one of four people killed in the neighborhood in the span of a year.

The Ballpark neighborhood makes up the majority of the district’s police calls, Meinzer said. The Gail R. Miller Resource Center received the fifth-most calls for service in 2021, according to SLCPD, at 819. That’s 178 more calls than in 2020.

Data from 2021 shows that compared to the previous year, crime is down. But looking at the three years before, crime in the district is slightly higher.

Levels of violent crime in particular were higher in 2021 than the area’s three- and five-year averages. Property crimes in general decreased after a jump in 2020, but the data shows a sharp increase in burglaries.

Between 2016 and 2020, the district averaged three homicides a year. Salt Lake City police reported seven in 2020 and five in 2021.

Ciara and Sach Combs bought their home on West Temple in Ballpark in 2003. The family moved out last year, fed up with feeling too scared to let their kids play outside.

“I took my babies home to that house,” Ciara Combs said. “We love that house and we dearly miss our neighbors.”

But the chronic drug misuse and dealing, finding needles on the ground — it was too much.

Arika Schockmel and her husband bought their Ballpark house in 2005. Someone soon kicked their garage door down to break in.

“We don’t count that in our count,” she said, “because we had nothing in there and we hadn’t even seen the interior of the garage.”

Minus that first incident, the couple has had four garage break-ins since. People have cut through a chain. Cut through locks. Broken down the door. She said she’s installed cameras just to have them vandalized or stolen. People have taken Schockmel’s tools, an air compressor, a telescope and bicycles.

“And so we stopped putting anything of value in there, outside of like the lawn tools,” Schockmel said, “until we got this bicycle that we were trying to keep a secret from my kid.”

It was meant to be an Easter present from the child’s aunt, but Schockmel’s 11-year-old never got to ride it. Someone tore through the fence and smashed in the garage door. Schockmel discovered the break-in on March 16. The thief took that bike and another that Schockmel, who works for the University of Utah’s theatre department, planned to use someday as a stage prop.

People have walked into Schockmel’s home. She’s been threatened with a knife. She said she feels more or less confined to her house once the sun sets. She’s ready — and planning — to move to the suburbs.

In every other city Schockmel has visited, neighborhoods near ballparks are walkable, with shops to visit and good places to eat or drink. She said Ballpark in Salt Lake City could have all that, and in some ways does, but she’s been too afraid to enjoy it.

“I really wish I felt safe enough to walk to them,” she said.

Melissa Denton, another homeowner, also wants out. But the housing market — the same one that has pushed many Utahns to the brink of homelessness — makes finding a new place much more difficult.

“We can’t just pack up and move right now. We don’t have that luxury,” Denton said. “And we shouldn’t have to.”

She said since she and her husband moved in about three years ago, she sees crime in one way or another every day. Like others, she finds needles in her yard and is scared to let her child play outside. People have broken into her garage, too. Cars parked at her house have been vandalized.

More recently, she and her husband have seen several fires burning at an encampment behind their house. They called 911 multiple times and said they never got an in-person response. Denton said it’s not the first time they’ve felt first responders were dismissive of their calls for help. They were irritated.

Then, on March 12, as Denton and her daughter sat in the kitchen, the 5-year-old pointed out the window to a black plume of smoke pouring out from their alleyway. She said flames taller than her garage burned through a neighbor’s fence. A few more feet, and they would have reached her garage. That didn’t happen, she said. Fire crews put it out quickly.

But she said she still isn’t confident that the next time something happens, if she calls for help, that anyone will show up.

“It’s just, it’s frustrating to be ignored so many times…and then for something bad to happen,” Denton said. “It’s like we’re trying to be proactive and keep our neighborhood safe and we’re not getting anything.”

What’s being done to fix the problem?

Meinzer said his goal when he became the neighborhood’s community liaison officer was to listen to community members and try to solve their problems.

One of his biggest operations was decreasing crime at and around the Shop N Save. Meinzer’s goal was to reduce the number of calls for service and police reports generated for complaints near the store.

He started by telling business owners and community members to tell someone to leave if they’re doing something illegal on their property. If that didn’t work, he told them to call the police. If the police were called, they’d come.

Data comparing June 2020 to January 2021 and June 2021 to January 2022 show the number of police reports generated near the store have dropped 25%, and calls for service decreased by 20%.

“The whole feeling of the area changed,” Meinzer said, “because the community came together to say, ‘Nope, not here. If you come here, we’re going to call police, and they’re actually going to come and help us.’”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sgt. Nathan Meinzer speaks with concerned residents and business owners about crime in the Ballpark neighborhood of Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 7, 2022. Sgt. Meinzer said officers deal with so many repeat offenders that they tell a joke to new recruits: “If you didn’t catch him this time, you’ll catch him next time.”

That doesn’t prevent repeat offenders who are experiencing homelessness from coming back to the neighborhood and re-offending. District Attorney Gill said these are often people who are “seriously, persistently mentally ill and seriously and persistently resource resistant because they just don’t have the [mental] capacity.”

Gill said his office, along with Salt Lake City Police Department and the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, are working on a solution. It involves identifying “high-utilizers” — so far his office has found about 20 individuals — and figuring out how their cases have been handled previously.

“We’re discovering that there’s a siloed process in Utah,” Gill said. “There’s no coordinated effort to communicate and look at who these people are, and the agencies that should be helping them are not necessarily helping them because they’re the most difficult clients.”

To help these people, Gill said officials need greater flexibility to hold them in jail to figure out whether or not the person is competent enough to go through the criminal justice process. If they are, Gill said the courts could instate a special Justice Court calendar to connect them with services.

If not, they could move to a different process to receive mental health treatment and other care through state departments such as the Division of Services for People with Disabilities, Gill said.

The group looking into high-utilizers is planning to put forth proposals for law changes once the analysis is complete.

Gill said he knows that residents’ and business owners’ “concerns for safety are valid and the system is not responding.” He said this group is trying to figure out how to make it work.

‘I already have a job’

The Ballpark community has been buzzing since last fall.

In October, residents dodged a plan to convert a detox center in the nearby Central Ninth neighborhood into a permanent overflow shelter. A month later, Salt Lake City revealed a plan meant to transform the neighborhood and attract development with more green space, bike lanes and room to walk.

In March, Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law the measure that will allocate millions to deeply affordable housing — but which could force resource centers to “flex” capacity above limits set in their conditional use permits, terms that initially helped placate community members wary of the shelter.

Later that month, the city council approved another moratorium on homeless resource centers for another year. District 3 council member Chris Wharton said at the time that city leaders don’t think they can solve the problem next year.

“But we do need this time to be able to be in a better position to respond and to meet the need,” he said, “not only of our sheltered residents but our unsheltered residents.”

Flynn, executive director of the organization that operates the Ballpark shelter, said making the area feel safe for everyone will take working with city leaders and police.

“Whenever you have a large number of vulnerable people, you’re going to have folks who want to take advantage of that,” Flynn said. “And that’s the criminal element that we are all trying to make sure doesn’t hang out in our neighborhood.”

At Alpha Munitions, the group in the office break into their own conversations. Danielson recounted the times he’s seen people beaten up for money. Meinzer discussed the people he and others arrest who “charges don’t seem to stick to.” Goldberg, who owns the dog day care, begins to say how tired she is — and then she starts shaking.

“Just talking about this makes me. . .,” Goldberg trailed off.

“Well,” Danielson said, filling the silence, “she’s got the worst of any of them who’s here.”

Gathering herself, Goldberg said she is “fatigued.” She doesn’t want to pick up the phone to call the police for every crime she sees. Or the fire department every time someone lights a fire. It happens too often.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Goldberg, right, owner of Diggity Dog Resort is greeted by Gadget, owned by a business neighbor across the street from her place along Paramount Avenue in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 7, 2022. Amy Hawkins, left, head of the Ballpark community council was visiting to hear about all the crime and dangerous altercations business owners have endured surrounding the homeless resource center next door.

She’s tired of reading customer reviews that compliment everything about her business but say they are scared of the people outside the resource center. She’s tired of escorting her patrons — and their dogs — in and out the front door. Of losing employees and business. Of being threatened.

Without the efforts of a few individuals — people like Meinzer and community council chair Amy J. Hawkins — many in the room feel like nothing would have been done to help them.

“I feel like the city has put it on us to be the watchmen and women of the streets,” Goldberg said. “I already have a job.”

I already have a job,” she repeated. “So just the extra safety precautions, the extra expenses, the extra concerns for my staff and for my customers. It’s aggravating, and it’s overwhelming.”

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