Salt Lake City crime has declined for two straight years following a 2015 peak, with violent crime down by more than 5 percent annually and lesser offenses seeing a more modest decline in 2016 before nudging up this year, according to city police crime statistics.
The data run counter to public concerns about rising crime in Utah’s capital. But the numbers do confirm one widespread perception — that this year’s massive Operation Rio Grande initiative, aimed at reducing crime near the state’s largest homeless shelter, worked as intended, but also pushed criminal activity into neighboring areas, at least temporarily.
Citywide, the most serious offenses — aggravated assault, arson, burglary, homicide, major larcenies including motor vehicles, rape and robbery — declined a cumulative 5.4 percent in the 12 months from last December through last month, and by 5.2 percent during the same period a year earlier, the statistics show.
One anomaly: murder. The city has registered a total of 14 homicides for the 12 months from December 2016 through last November. That’s double the number for the same period in 2015 (seven) and up from 10 in 2016.
The dozens of offenses that make up the category of lesser crimes — incidents such as disorderly conduct, drug abuse, DUI, vandalism, trespassing and other nonviolent offenses — saw a cumulative 2.4 percent rise in the past year after a 0.9 percent drop for the prior 12 months. Police officials attribute that increase to stepped-up enforcement on quality-of-life offenses.
Overall, city crime declined 0.7 percent in the past year after falling 2.6 percent a year earlier. In contrast, in 2015, total crime rose 7.2 percent for the year, with serious crime up 8 percent and lesser crimes up by 6.7 percent.
The analysis of crime statistics for the past 60 months comes as the city prepares to hire 50 new police officers in 2018 — a better than 10 percent increase for the department. The new hires, estimated to cost roughly $10 million over the next two years, likely will require a tax increase next year.
Although the statistics show declining crime, elected city leaders say the big influx of new officers is well justified — and overdue.
Perceptions, sense of safety matter
Officials say the additional cops — who will start hitting the streets next summer — are sorely needed to address the department’s underlying long-term staffing shortage, as well as the widespread public perception that crime is up and the city is less safe.
"If a crime happens to you, there is a 100 percent increase in crime,” Councilwoman Lisa Adams said. “If people never ever see a police officer, they don’t feel like anyone’s ever around.”
But crime, with isolated exceptions, “really isn’t up,” she said, citing the data. “People say, ’I know you’re increasing police because crime is up.’ We’re not. We’re increasing police officers because our population is increasing. People just won’t believe it.”
Councilman Charlie Luke, whose District 6 has the city’s lowest rate of reported crime, agreed that perception and a sense of neighborhood safety are important.
“We’re not looking for a cop on every corner or some military presence throughout the city,” Luke said. “But having officers in the neighborhood, it really helps deal with that perception issue. … As far as the crime goes, there is a perception that it’s higher, but I think we’re now seeing people report some of those smaller petty crimes.”
Operation Rio Grande
The chronic shortage of cops in the city was felt more keenly this year amid the diversion of officers and resources to Operation Rio Grande.
Monthly crime data from before and just after the multijurisdiction crackdown launched in mid-August show that the effort temporarily reduced crime in the immediate vicinity of the homeless shelter, while pushing it out like a spider web to adjoining areas, as anecdotal reports and residents’ perceptions suggested. The shift subsided in subsequent months, however, with normal crime patterns returning.
The crime data are broken down along City Council district lines. In September, the month after Rio Grande started, crime was down sharply in District 4, where the shelter is, but rose in Districts 1 and 3, to the north and west, and in District 5 to the south.
All Salt Lake City crime rises in the summer months, peaking in either July or August, depending in part on weather and temperature. Districts 1 and 2 saw a 1-1.5 percentage point increase in their share of overall city crime compared with other districts in September, and District 1’s share continued to climb in October.
District 5, whose proportional share of city crime dipped in August, saw that rate bounce back in September, after Operation Rio Grande started. The district’s share of city crime continued to rise in October and November, even as crime numbers saw their typical seasonal drop, in all other districts and citywide.
At the same time, the proportional share of crime in District 4, which month-to-month routinely records a third or more of all city crime, dropped by 6 percentage points in September, to 31 percent from 37 percent in August. It remained below 31 percent of total city crime through November.
Overall, the change in crime rates across the city in 2017, as measured in the individual City Council districts, varied by geography. All but one district — District 6 — saw a year-over-year decline in serious crime, while three districts saw increases in lesser crimes. The district-specific rates of change for lesser offenses ranged from an 11 percent drop in District 6 — which routinely has the least crime in the city — to a 25 percent hike in District 2.
Compared with other cities, prior years
The most recent annual statistics put Salt Lake City’s crime rate at the favorable end of the range against the nation’s 30 largest cities. An updated analysis this month by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law projects that the overall crime rate in those cities will average a 2.7 percent decline for the year through December.
The projected decline in violent offenses in those cities averages just over 1 percent. Using the Brennan Center’s measure of violent crime — the four most serious offenses — Salt Lake City’s rate declined 3.7 percent. That puts it among the 13 cities in the study that saw their crime rates drop.
Though lesser offenses in Salt Lake City ticked up overall this year, police officials and statisticians said the sharp and consistent drop in serious crime since 2015 is a truer measure of a trend. Numbers for lesser offenses are potentially driven up by stepped-up enforcement efforts for such things as drug abuse, DUI or prostitution. Nearly all DUI and prostitution incidents, not to mention all warrant arrests, are driven by enforcement.
As for the decline in serious crime, the city’s No. 2 police official cited the success of the city’s 2-year-old computerized crime tracking system, CompStat. The tool allows for continuously compiling statistics and measurements that the department analyzes, assessing enforcement needs and responding rapidly to changing trends and conditions.
“Before CompStat, very few people in the department knew what the crime rate was. We’d just go out and answer calls,” said Assistant Police Chief Tim Doubt. “Now everybody knows what the crime rate is because they get a report every week … and they have to report themselves.”
Doubt said the program’s contribution to reducing service calls is helping the department move forward with a community policing strategy aimed at putting more officers on regular neighborhood patrols. The 50 new officers coming on board in 2018 add to that effort.
The dropping crime rate is “testament to the community policing model and the department’s reliance on CompStat,” said Matt Rojas, a spokesman for Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
“We always have some concern when we see some areas of crime, particularly robbery, not going down and staying down,” Rojas said. “But that’s the principle of CompStat — to break that down and target area resources accordingly.”
Doubt said CompStat would help the department deploy the new officers most efficiently.
“Crime is dropping, which relates to reduced calls for service,” Doubt said. With the new officers, “We’ll be able to handle calls for service and still have more time for officers dealing with patrol, dealing with hot spots, and looking at what underlying problems are.”
Here’s a closer breakdown of Salt Lake City crime by district:
The district saw a 12 percent rise in lesser offenses but a 9 percent drop in serious crimes. The jump in lesser offenses was driven mostly by more cases of fraud, drug abuse and vandalism, in addition to nuisance crimes — and the district’s proximity to the Rio Grande area played a role.
The district’s declining rate of serious crime was driven mostly by a drop in larcenies, including stolen cars, and assaults.
Directly adjacent to the Rio Grande area, District 2’s boundaries include a northerly notch of territory in the city’s heart that accounts for most of the district’s crime.
For 2017, the district saw a nearly 25 percent rise in lesser crimes, led mostly by enforcement-driven increases in drug abuse and prostitution, in addition to an increase in a catch-all category of myriad nuisance offenses. Overall serious crime in the district dipped by 2.2 percent, including a 7.7 percent drop in larcenies, the largest single category of serious offenses.
District 2 Council member Andrew Johnston said he and his District 1 colleague, James Rogers, were most concerned with crime that has “gotten much worse” since Operation Rio Grande in the motel-laden strip of North Temple that is the border of their districts.
“If you look at the map, that area really glows red,” he said. “It’s also a perception piece — how safe people feel in their neighborhood is as legitimate as any hard numbers on occurrences.”
The city’s highest crime area, accounting for more than a third of all incidents citywide, District 4 saw declines in both serious and lesser crimes in 2017 — 0.7 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively. In raw numbers, that’s 700 fewer offenses. The largest declines in lesser offenses showed up in fewer assaults and incidents of drug abuse and vandalism.
Among serious crimes, the district saw aggravated assault, arson and larcenies decline, but burglaries, robberies and stolen cars rose. The district also saw five more murders this year — seven, up from two last year.
Councilman Derek Kitchen said the increases in homicide and some serious offenses “demonstrated why Operation Rio Grande was so important.” While the city as a whole looks “pretty healthy” in terms of crime compared with other cities and historical trends, he said his district’s statistics reflect “a mixed bag.”
“We are the urban core — the central business district. It makes sense,” he said. Along with Johnston, he cited the need for treating mental health and substance abuse issues and to set policing levels to account for the substantial weekday influx of people who come to the city to work, shop or sightsee.
The city’s police have “an enormous responsibility of taking care of public safety for a huge population increase that maybe aren’t contributing to the tax base or funding police in an ongoing manner,” he said.
This district saw the largest decline in serious crime in 2017 — 11 percent. But it also had a 10 percent jump in lesser offenses, joining Districts 1 and 2 as the areas most affected by the Rio Grande crime crackdown. Like those west-side districts, District 5, represented by Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, saw its crime increase as a share of all citywide offenses the month after Rio Grande started.
Among lesser offenses, the district saw increases in drug abuse and prostitution arrests as well as incidents involving runaways, fraud, DUI and sex offenses.
Most of its decline in serious crime appeared in a sharp drop in larcenies — 12.6 percent. Serious assaults, robberies and burglaries were down, but rapes increased by eight, to 61 total. Rape has increased 75 percent in the district compared with two years ago.
Besides the Rio Grande-driven crime shift, Mendenhall said she saw a connection in the increase among all sex crimes in the district, along with more incidents involving runaways.
“The context I absolutely think of is through a [human] trafficking lens and what kinds of business environments exist in each of the districts, which may foster and enable certain types of crime more than others,” she said.
Increases in enforcement and a more visible police presence also lead potentially to greater community involvement and incident reporting, she said, as neighborhoods start to trust that police are being more responsive.
This district saw a 2.8 percent dip in serious crime and a 6.6 percent decline in lesser crimes.
Counting serious crimes, the area saw declines in assaults and larcenies but increases in burglaries, robberies and stolen cars. It saw five more rapes in the past year, for a total of 29.
In the lesser crime category, assaults and vandalism were down, but there were increases in drug abuse and fraud cases. The latter is highly correlated with drug-related offenses.
This, the city’s most residential district, had the lowest crime rate, accounting for just 2.8 percent of all city incidents.
District 6 saw a 2.6 percent increase in serious crime, but that uptick amounts to just 19 incidents out of more than 750.
The area saw large declines in assaults, as well as vandalism.
District 6’s small numbers show 19 more burglaries and 11 more stolen cars, but 18 fewer larcenies of other kinds and five rapes, after 10 the previous year.
Councilman Charlie Luke attributed declines to more police in the community, along with greater use by residents of social-networking apps and platforms to monitor their neighborhoods and share concerns. Both lead to more reported incidents.
Like his colleagues, he said the city “needs to be focusing on police numbers based on daytime population,” although staffing the department to that level could be “incredibly expensive.”
The district saw a decline of 10.4 percent in serious crimes and a 9.4 percent drop in lesser crimes.
Serious crimes in the area declined in all measures except for rape, which increased by eight over the preceding 12 months, for a total of 25. Robberies, serious assaults, larcenies, stolen cars and burglaries decreased, and there were no homicides or arson incidents.