Public safety leaders call for increased collaboration to address rising crime in Salt Lake City

Reports of violent crime and property crime have surged in the capital city in 2020.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Police gather evidence on State Street in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

Addressing spikes in violent crime and property crime in Utah’s capital city will require a coming together of federal, state and local resources akin to the levels of coordination seen during Operation Rio Grande, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said Thursday.

But unlike that two-year campaign targeting lawlessness and public safety issues in the downtown Pioneer Park area — which Brown said “accomplished a lot of great things” — the chief is calling now for a more sustained public safety effort.

“I think we’ve got to stop thinking of these things as an operation with a beginning and end date and it’s more of how we’re going to move forward as how we do business and how we operate together and not just focus on, ‘Well we’ve got to get this done and now we’ve solved the problem,’” he said during a virtual public safety forum hosted by the Pioneer Park Coalition on Thursday evening. “I think it goes far beyond that.”

Brown said solutions will also have to include nonprofit organizations and resources for mental health and addiction treatment.

“Some of these things we’re trying to fix — like mental health issues, addiction — really aren’t crimes,” he said. “And we’re going to need a lot of help from our partners in those areas to help us move forward together as a community.”

Reports of violent crime and property crime have surged in Salt Lake City in 2020, with the former increasing by 21.6% and the latter by 24.9% citywide compared to last year. Criminal homicide, aggravated assault and motor vehicle theft in the capital city all are at levels higher than the five-year average for those crimes, according to statistics from the Salt Lake City Police Department.

“We have a safety problem in our city,” said David Ibarra, a businessman and member of the Pioneer Park Coalition, who cited some of those surges during the forum on Thursday. “And we’ve got to address it.”

Law enforcement officials and community leaders point to a number of possible causes for the spikes, from complications stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic to the growing size of the city’s homeless encampments and a hiring freeze for police in the capital city that’s limited law enforcement resources.

But whatever the root cause might be, the panelists who spoke during Thursday’s Public Safety Summit seemed to agree that more collaboration between government agencies is the key to addressing the problem.

“We all have to work together and that’s what we’re seeing and what we have seen be successful in the past,” said Utah Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson, who noted that partnerships between entities are “the only way to make things effective.”

It’s unclear, though, how much of that coordination is already ongoing or what plans there are to facilitate it.

During the panel discussion, John Huber, U.S. attorney for the District of Utah, spoke of the success his team had with Ogden officials to reduce crime in the area by identifying “apex criminals in the heart of that city” and then screening their crimes for federal charges.

As a result, “we saw while other communities and cities across the country — including here in Utah, including Salt Lake City — have struggled with a sharp increase in crime rates this year, Ogden is completely opposite,” he said.

“We see 25-30% crime reduction over two and a half years,” he added. “The 30% is overall crime, the 25% is violent crime. So if 1 in 4 violent crimes don’t happen now that happened two and a half years ago, that is a tremendous success story. "

In light of those outcomes, Huber said he feels he could be part of the solution in the state’s capital and expressed a need for “meaningful discussions” with Salt Lake City leaders.

Ibarra, who hosted the panel on Thursday, asked if Huber had received an invitation from Salt Lake City officials, like he had from those in Ogden, to put a similar program together.

“Maybe I should call them,” Huber responded, noting that he has a good relationship with leaders there and believes they could come up with solutions together if there was the proper political will.

Beyond the work of government agencies, the Pioneer Park Coalition has its own plans for addressing rising crime in the city, through a new Safe Streets Initiative that includes a street-level focus on deterring crime through signage and partnerships with community organizations, kind of like a neighborhood watch program.

As part of the strategy, the group also plans to track certain crime data, in an effort to hold law enforcement officials accountable for their response to any public safety issues that are reported by members of the Safe Streets Initiative.

As government budgets shrink amid the coronavirus pandemic, Ibarra said it’s going to take everyone working together to reverse the trends that have in 2020 reversed years of falling crime.

“There is no way we’re going to solve this without using the resources of everybody sitting here,” he said. “We’ve got talent. All we’ve got to do is now work together in harmony — and that’s a new word, harmony — to achieve our desired end result.”