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Several cities and townships in Salt Lake County will likely have to figure out new ways to protect their residents after state lawmakers voted in the waning hours of the Legislature’s general session Friday to dissolve the Unified Police Department.
HB374, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, would remove the Salt Lake County sheriff as CEO of the department and ultimately dissolve the agency in 2025, leaving Holladay, Midvale, Millcreek, Kearns, Copperton, White City and Magna to find new law enforcement services. The bill was awaiting Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature as of Monday.
Teuscher said the legislation puts control back into the hands of local leaders, but some have expressed concern about an uncertain future.
“Our officers are going to live in limbo,” Midvale Mayor Marcus Stevenson said, “and our communities are going to live in limbo of, ‘What is public safety going to look like in 2025?’”
Stevenson, who heads UPD’s board of directors, worries the two-year timeline will hurt communities trying to scrape together money for a new police department while still paying for UPD services.
Midvale, Millcreek and Holladay pay for UPD with general fund dollars, he said, and are not getting financial support to build new departments from the ground up.
“The challenge is going to be in this transition period, as we both have to keep one organization afloat and start another organization,” Stevenson said. “The state Legislature is not giving us any funds to help us in this transition that they are likely to force us to go through.”
Communities that currently receive policing services from UPD would be able to start their own departments, contract with the county sheriff’s office for services, contract with another city that already has its own police department, or set up a new multijurisdictional police department.
“There’s a number of these cities that have left UPD and created their own policing forces,” he said, “and they figured out how to divide assets and how to pay for it and everything just fine.”
Teuscher said existing UPD officers shouldn’t have any problem finding new work because there is a shortage of police officers. The bill also includes language that protects existing officers’ benefits if they move to the sheriff’s office should the department dissolve.
Why did lawmakers pursue this bill?
When UPD was established by the Legislature in 2009, lawmakers hoped the department would eventually grow to become the main law enforcement agency in the county, Teuscher said in a House committee hearing Feb. 15.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the agency has shrunk as more cities have left to create their own police departments.
Teuscher said the diminished UPD creates a conflict of interest for the sheriff’s office, because the sheriff oversees the county as a whole while also representing the dwindling number of cities that contract with UPD.
“You have situations where what might be best for the county, may not be the best thing for UPD,” Teuscher said in the hearing. “What might be the best thing for UPD, may not be the best thing for the county. And with that conflict of interest, it brings up questions of transparency and accountability and et cetera.”
In a news release last month, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera bristled at allegations that her role overseeing the department created a conflict of interest.
“Sheriff Rivera has asked on multiple occasions for evidence of the conflict from those working to remove her and is still waiting for that information,” the release stated.
Despite efforts to resolve what she considered “unfounded misconceptions” about the department, Rivera reluctantly threw her support behind the bill.
“I have been backed into a corner by political forces and there are no easy paths out,” she said in a statement. “I am supporting the bill because I have a responsibility to create long-term stability for public safety for the residents of Salt Lake County and the people who work for UPD.”
How UPD works
The Unified Police Department was established in 2009 to provide law enforcement services throughout Salt Lake County to communities that do not operate their own police departments.
The Salt Lake County sheriff oversees the department’s day-to-day operations while a board made up of elected officials oversees administrative duties, like the budget and human resources policies.
UPD combines a variety of police services such as SWAT, forensics, canyon patrol, and search and rescue under one organization so participating communities can share costs. The goal, according to the department’s website, is to save local governments money and reduce the tax burden on residents.
How much each participating community pays into the overall cost of operating the agency depends on things like population, property values, and the number of calls for service in a city or township.
Salt Lake County pays a flat 20% every year, but because that contribution does not take into consideration which communities are already paying for their own departments, some have expressed concerns about double taxation.
County Council member Sheldon Stewart, who represents the southwest portion of the county, campaigned heavily on the argument that residents of Riverton, where he served as a City Council member, were taxed unfairly for UPD services that they would never need because the city operates its own police department.
Stewart said Teuscher’s bill empowers the communities that are currently served by UPD and doesn’t prevent them from starting another version of the department without the county’s involvement.
“At the end of the day, I’ve always been an advocate for public safety and for police officers,” Stewart said, “but I also think that people need to cover their fair share of those services.”
Is operating an independent police force safer?
Cottonwood Heights previously made the decision to separate from contracted law enforcement services with the Salt Lake County sheriff’s office in 2008, before UPD was established. The city’s own police department launched later that year.
Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Weichers said the final straw for the separation came after a November 2007 burglary call, for which sheriff’s office deputies failed to respond in a timely manner.
At the time, former Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder strongly opposed the decision, arguing that the city was sacrificing public safety to create its own department. But since creating its own police department, Weichers argued, Cottonwood Heights has seen better police response times and is able to tailor its resources to better serve its residents’ specific needs.
“You’re not just trying to fight with somebody else that maybe isn’t quite as invested as you are in the actual city you live in,” Weichers said.
He also argued that Cottonwood Heights being in charge of its own police department was a better deal for taxpayers. The city spends about $7 million a year on policing, while similarly sized Midvale spends $12 million annually for police services from UPD, he said.
If the bill becomes law and cities and townships decide to start their own departments, Weichers said, Cottonwood Heights would be willing to help them through the transition.