With cities creating their own police agencies, what’s the future of the Unified Police Department?

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Unified Police Chief Jason Mazuran talks about the new Unified Police hybrid vehicles after announcing the new Salt Lake County clean air initiatives, during a news conference in front of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office, March 4, 2020. The UPD is planning some reorganization moves in coming months, including reducing its costs.

Midvale City is considering whether to stick with the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake or whether to depart the agency and form its own police department.

This comes on the heels of Taylorsville’s announcement that it will leave the UPD next year to form its own force and the split of Herriman and Riverton in 2018 and 2019 to form their own agencies.

Where does all this leave UPD?

Sgt. Melody Gray said the agency is planning to address some of the major issues that have driven cities away from UPD.

One of the main reasons Midvale is contemplating leaving the agency is that costs have increased in recent years. Gray said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera is considering a potential reorganization of the department in an effort to cut costs.

However, Gray doesn’t know yet how big the reductions would be and she said it will be months before the details of the reorganization are finalized.

The department’s board of directors also plans to develop a three-to-five year plan to raise officer pay, another issue that factors into Midvale’s possible move away from the agency.

Additionally, some cities are upset that UPD lacks weighted voting for budgetary issues because each city gets one vote no matter its size. This means Copperton, a township which has a population of less than 1,000, has the same voting power as Midvale, which had a population of 34,124 in 2019.

Midvale was also concerned that UPD might raise costs for other member cities after Taylorsville leaves the agency, passing on the cost of shared services to the remaining cities.

In its most recent meeting, the UPD board motion approved a motion for staff to recommend a budget that is revenue neutral and includes at least a 5% pay increase for officers and sergeants.

During the meeting, board members also passed a motion for Jeffrey Pickett, an accountant who works for Lone Peak Valuation Group, to review a staff report that will examine the financial impact of removing Rivera as CEO of UPD.

Midvale Mayor Robert Hale brought up the issue of UPD’s governance, asking that the board be allowed to appoint its own CEO who cannot veto a board action.

But Harry Souvall, UPD chief legal counsel, raised concerns that if Rivera is removed as CEO, the organization could shrink because UPD may no longer be able to perform services that are specifically the sheriff’s responsibility, such as patrolling public lands.

Losing cities

Over the last five years, UPD’s budget has decreased and the organization has lost officers. In budget year 2015 to 2016, UPD had 427 officers and a budget of $71,152,979. In the current fiscal year, 2020 to 2021, the agency has 385 sworn officers and its budget is $70,081,809.

However Detective Ken Hansen, public information officer for the agency, said even if the loss of cities continues “UPD stays the same,” in an interview. “It’s just that those specialized units” — such as SWAT, violent crimes, special victims and family crimes — “either go away or they’re much smaller,” he added.

Hanson noted that UPD functioned as the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office before sharing services with different cities. He said if every city or township left in the future, UPD might revert to its origins.

Gray said the department didn’t lose too many resources when Herriman left to form its own police agency because the city has a small police force and a low crime rate.

Herriman also hired many of its UPD officers to work for the city, making its departure from the agency “a seamless transition,” Gray told The Tribune.

When Riverton left the agency it didn’t take many UPD officers but Unified Police had enough openings to keep the officers within the department without any layoffs.

UPD is currently made up of Brighton, Copperton, Emigration Canyon, Holladay, Kearns, Midvale, Magna, Millcreek, Taylorsville and communities in the southeast portion of the Midvale Precinct — White City Township, Granite West, Willow Canyon, Willow Creek, and Sandy Hills.

Hansen noted the idea behind UPD is to have a reservoir of resources and equipment that smaller cities might not otherwise have access to.

“The important part of this is that you can pool resources,” he said in an interview. “So if a city does have a major problem, we can put a lot of resources into that to help them resolve it,” Hansen added.

“I understand why cities want to have some control over their police departments in their community but I think that this model over time is going to improve,” he said.

Midvale in limbo

On June 30, the Midvale City Council had a lengthy debate about whether to remain or depart the UPD, followed by several failed motions. The upshot is that any decision has been postponed until the council can arrive at a majority to move in one direction or the other.

Councilman Paul Glover, representative of District 2, moved to table the motion to leave UPD until he sees what services are cut and how many officers Midvale has left after Taylorsville leaves UPD next year.

He also said he wants to await the completion of a financial feasibility study to make the call. The report is expected in coming weeks.

“They’ve given us their preliminary findings,” Glover said “But not ... the thing they need to really tell us to make a decision appropriately,” he said, referring to detailed costs and level of services.

Preliminary findings from the study presented by Midvale’s assistant city manager, Matt Dahl showed that Midvale’s startup cost for a new department would range from $5.1 million to $7.4 million.

Operating costs for fiscal year 2022 are projected to range from $8.7 million to $9.8 million. Midvale’s 2021 budget for UPD is roughly $9.4 million. Dahl said the low cost range would allow the city save a small amount of money but in the high range, Midvale might end up paying more for police services.

Councilman Bryant Brown, who represents District 4, rejects the wait-and-see approach. He said the city needs to “act one way or the other in a decisive matter.”

“This sort of limbo we’ve created with [UPD] I think is unhealthy for the city and for UPD and if the majority of council wants to stay they should vocalize that.”

Brown said he voted against tabling a decision because he doesn’t know what additional information the completed feasibility study would provide. “We already know [leaving UPD] would save Midvale money,” he told The Tribune.

The council has yet to schedule a discussion to revisit the issue.