Leaders of three cities served by the Unified Police Department say the agency will live on — even after state lawmakers took steps this month to dismantle it.
Mayors of Millcreek, Midvale and Holladay say they intend to keep the department running and that nothing in the recently signed HB374 prevents them from doing so.
“The message I’d like to get out there, to say anything, is UPD is not dissolving,” Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said. “It’s evolving.”
The legislation, passed by state lawmakers in the waning hours of the 2023 general session, forces the departure of the Salt Lake County sheriff as the CEO of the UPD and leaves Holladay, Millcreek, Midvale and six townships with the task of figuring out how to police their communities by July 2025.
The existing cities and metro townships that pay into the UPD have the options of providing policing services by contracting with the sheriff’s office, contracting with another city’s police department, setting up their own department, or providing services through a multijurisdictional police force.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, has said his legislation essentially dissolves the UPD by upending the collaborative structure between the county and the department.
“Could all of those same members come back together and form something called Unified Police Department? Yes, they could,” Teuscher said this month. “Could they keep all the same buildings in it? Yeah, they could. But it would be dissolving and creating something new.”
Silvestrini, however, said there is nothing in the legislation that requires the UPD’s dissolution and that he anticipates most of the department’s member communities to stay in the compact that created the police force.
“We’ve had legal counsel look at that, and I’m confident that we’re right about that,” Silvestrini said. “So we don’t have to re-form the agency.”
Gearing up for reorganization
The county, however, will withdraw from the UPD, sparking a reorganization of how services are paid for and provided.
Midvale Mayor Marcus Stevenson, head of the department’s board of directors, said the board plans to meet with current UPD members in July to establish priorities for reorganizing.
Stevenson said funding for the department remains an open question, so members who are at the table for the July meeting could decide later to leave the UPD if costs become prohibitive.
“Really,” Stevenson said, “the big question we’re looking at there comes down to the Salt Lake County Council, and where services will live.”
The county currently foots the bill for 20% of the UPD’s countywide shared services — like the homicide detective unit — and funds the entirety of other services like the metro gang unit.
It is unknown, Stevenson said, if the county will opt to move those shared services to the sheriff’s office, continue to fund them through the UPD, or discontinue funding them at all.
“If the county is not at the table for those task forces, then they’re not going to be providing any of that 20%,” Stevenson said. “But that 20% that they pay right now, I think that if they’re at the table at all, we’re going to see likely a change to that 20%. And I just don’t know that we know yet how much of a change in that number.”
The board has asked its county representatives to let the UPD know how involved the county will be by this summer.
County Council Chair Aimee Winder Newton said decisions about which agency would provide shared services throughout the county are up to the sheriff, who has the option to offer them through the sheriff’s office or contract them out with another agency.
“My gut,” Winder Newton said, “is that she’ll bring the countywide services in-house under the sheriff’s banner.”
County Sheriff Rosie Rivera was unavailable for an interview.
Will townships stick with UPD?
One of the biggest pieces of the reorganization puzzle is the involvement of metro townships that currently receive policing services through the UPD. Those communities are Copperton, Kearns, Magna, White City, Emigration Canyon and now-incorporated Brighton.
Stevenson said many of those townships hope to stay with a revamped UPD, but it is unclear if the funding model they use to pay for policing would allow them to do so. (Townships pay for UPD services through the Salt Lake Valley Law Enforcement Service Area.)
“If the County Council is not at the table, will the township still be able to collect taxes from [Salt Lake Valley Law Enforcement Service Area]?” Stevenson asked. “And if it’s not through [that approach], is there another way for them to do this?”
It is unclear, Winder Newton said, where the Salt Lake Valley Law Enforcement Service Area board will put its money for policing or whether it has the authority to split funding among multiple agencies.
Winder Newton said she is also trying to get answers about how involved the County Council will be in those funding decisions.
So far, the UPD has not lost any of its current cities and townships. Stevenson said the reorganization may lead other communities to join the partnership.
Mayors opposed the bill
Proponents of HB374 have said the sheriff’s involvement as CEO of the department created a conflict of interest because she oversees the county as a whole while also representing a dwindling number of cities that contract with the UPD.
Others have argued that the department leads to double taxation because residents of cities that operate an independent police department still end up paying into the UPD through the county’s contribution, even though they don’t receive services from the department.
Silvestrini said he has never seen a conflict of interest with the sheriff and that the department was clear about its finances.
“I was opposed to it [HB374] throughout and spoke against it and all that,” Silvestrini said, “but once the sheriff threw her support behind it, there wasn’t much point in opposing it.”
In a news release last month, the UPD said Rivera repeatedly tried to quash “unfounded misconceptions” about the department.
“I have been backed into a corner by political forces and there are no easy paths out,” Rivera said in the release. “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.”
The passage of HB374 angered Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle, who called the legislation “state overreach.”
“It’s water under the bridge now,” Dahle said. “It’s over. But my opinion is they took a hammer to something that could have been fixed with much more delicate tools, to use that metaphor.”
New structure could come next year
While the law may not require the department to disband entirely, Dahle said, it has created a sense of instability among officers who worry what the future may hold for the UPD.
It’s naive, Dahle said, to think the department’s current employees are not looking for work elsewhere in the wake of HB374.
The mayor said he wants to make the transition to the pared-down UPD as quickly as possible.
“I have no intention of dragging this out any longer than we possibly have to, and certainly not until July of 2025, because if you look at it from our standpoint, they basically turned us into a lame duck,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult to recruit into the unified model in the short term because of a perceived instability in what’s going to go on, and rightfully so.”
The UPD board hopes to start working out what the UPD will look like by July 1. The intention, city leaders say, is to have the department reorganized by July 1, 2024.
“There’s nothing set in stone that it has to be done by that date,” Stevenson said. “But it is with recognition that we need to get answers to our communities and to our officers as quickly and responsibly as possible.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.