‘This pay inequity simply cannot continue’: Salt Lake City police seek pay increase

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake City Airport Police, established in 1984, is presented with a new patch and badge as they are subsumed into the Salt Lake City Police Department, Feb. 26, 2019.

Police in Salt Lake City deal with more calls for services than other law enforcement agencies in the Wasatch Front, and officers are more likely than others to deal with hazardous situations or be involved in shootings, according to Steve Winters, president of the Salt Lake City Police Association.

Yet he said the city is eighth among Wasatch Front police departments based on its highest hourly officer pay rate — making it more difficult for the capital city to stay competitive and keep seasoned officers as it faces population growth and other challenges.

“This pay inequity simply cannot continue,” Winters told Salt Lake City Council members on Tuesday. “The pressures on police have never been more difficult than they are today.”

As union members negotiate their wages with the city administration as part of the mayor’s annual budget proposal, more than a dozen officers attended the council’s meeting Tuesday, many to make emotional pleas for higher pay.

“Our police officers are some of the best people you will ever meet,” said Officer Sarah Crane, who brought her young son to the podium with her. “They do a phenomenal job. They’re passionate. They are smart. They are caring and they work really hard. And we should be really proud of the people that we employ. But we’re going to start losing them, because we have to consider our families and we have to consider our pay.”

Officer Alen Gibic stepped up to the mic next, telling council members that after spending 13 years with the department, he recently applied for a position with a different city in the valley — and was offered a 15% pay raise if he made the switch.

“Every year I stay here my paychecks are worth less money,” he said. “One example is that I have to keep increasing my family’s grocery budget every year to keep up with the rising costs.”

“A lot of us feel like we’re in a sinking ship,” he said. “Please save us.”

The council, which isn’t involved in wage negotiations, didn’t discuss the officers’ comments on Tuesday. But Council Chairman Charlie Luke said in a statement that the council “supports all of Salt Lake City’s public safety personnel” and are willing to meet with union representatives outside of the budget process.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office declined to discuss its ongoing discussions.

Winters told The Salt Lake Tribune that there’s “been no offer from the city on the table” as of Thursday afternoon and said the officers came to the council as a preemptive move in case they don’t get the outcome they’re hoping for.

“We feel that we’re not going to get the numbers we want, so we’re trying to prepare [the council] and hope they can get on our side,” he said.

A spokesman from the mayor’s office said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has personally reached out to the union president to discuss wages as part of the overall compensation package but has not yet heard back.

The highest pay cap for Salt Lake City police officers is lower than in Park City, Murray, Heber City, Sandy, Cottonwood Heights, Kaysville and West Valley, according to an August 2018 analysis Winter provided to The Salt Lake Tribune.

That can make it more difficult to hold on to seasoned police officers, Winter said.

“Recruitment is always an issue in law enforcement and it’s become more and more so now because of the general sentiment of what’s happening toward law enforcement,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We’ve kind of got a bad rep right now and because of that, every police department — not just us — is struggling in that. So holding on to your staff is very very important right now. More so than normally.”

It can be difficult to compare police benefits and salaries, since agencies top out pay after different periods of service and have pay scales that vary based on qualifications, experience, training and education. A comprehensive study is “the unicorn everybody wants,” said Ian Adams, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The top pay analysis takes into consideration some of the differences in department offerings. It shows officers in 2018 could make up to $39 an hour in Park City, $37.01 in Murray and $35.18 in Heber, while Salt Lake City’s hourly wage caps out at $33.10.

Salt Lake City police last year received an increase in starting, entry-level pay, which a spokesman for the mayor said was an effort to better recruit officers. That increase came as part of a sales tax hike the council approved to pay for streets, transit, affordable housing and public safety.

But in a growing city, officers said they need more to stay competitive.

“As we continue to move forward with the expected [United Nations conference] coming in August, with the growing possibility of the Olympics, with all the concerts, Jazz games, corporate sponsored activities, how do we continue to ignore the growing problem of pay inequity?” Winters asked the council on Tuesday.

Officer John Fitisemanu pointed out that, in light of growth and the increasing complexity of their duties, the council had increased its own wages — and he argued they should do the same for the police department.

“While you’re able to vote your own raises, we at the police department are unable to do so, or else we would have by now,” he told the council. “Police officers in this department are frustrated, confused and angry at the lack of cooperation and concern from Salt Lake City officials.”

After the mayor’s budget package comes to the council, which is expected to happen in early May, the council will weigh in and could make changes to the police wages.