Violent crime and property crime surge in Salt Lake City, up more than 20% in 2020

Murders and aggravated assaults up. Motor vehicle thefts are peaking too.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City police officers working the cleanup of a series of campsites in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Utah's capital city has seen a spike in violent crimes and crimes against property in 2020. Officials say it's tied to a number of factors, including the pandemic, economic stress and depletion of police resources among other issues.

After years of trending downward, reports of violent crime and property crime have spiked in Salt Lake City this year — a microcosm of a nationwide trend of rising criminality that could have its roots in the coronavirus pandemic.

Violent crime increased 21.6% from Jan. 1 through Sunday, and property crimes are up 24.9%, according to crime statistics the Salt Lake City Police Department reports on its website. 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.

“This year called 2020, it’s really hard to compare it to anything else because I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like it,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s kind of an anomaly. A standout. And I hope we never have to repeat this year again.”

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

The causes behind the spikes are complex, but many point back to the COVID-19 pandemic, from economic desperation to early jail releases and the growing size of the city’s homeless encampments. Others speculate that the end of Operation Rio Grande and changes to the city’s police budget could have played a factor.

Data showed an increase in violent crime this summer in cities across the country, including Chicago, Kansas City, Mo., and Los Angeles. The New York Times reported in August that murder in 25 large American cities was up by 16.1% in relation to last year, while property crime was down in 18 of the cities examined.

Salt Lake City’s data shows the number of homicides in the city has increased slightly this year — from 14 in 2019 to 15 in 2020. That latest number is 41.5% higher than the five-year average of 10.60 homicides in the city.

“We are following kind of the national average” as it relates to violent crimes, Brown said. “I’m not happy about it. None of us are happy about it but it is what it is. Thankfully, though, it’s not as bad as some of the other cities that we’re comparing ourselves to.”

Crime data shows a 30.9% increase in family aggravated assault from 2019 to 2020 (up from 204 reported cases to 267 this year) and a 28% increase in nonfamily aggravated assaults. Residential burglary increased by nearly 6% and all other burglaries were up 26%.

Motor vehicle theft jumped 63%.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall pins the overall increases in crime to “the consequences of many anomalous issues of 2020″ — and she acknowledges that police response to the spike has been falling short and needs to be improved.

“I’m hearing from residents and business owners that our ability to respond to their urgent needs ... is not at the level that it should be,” she said. “It’s not at the level that they deserve, and I don’t believe it’s at the level that our officers want to be serving at.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

‘Desperate times’

Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano, who represents the district that’s been among the hardest hit by rising rates of violent crime , said in an interview that he’s heard his constituents express “a general sense of unsafety.”

“Really nobody I’ve talked to has a clear understanding of what’s happening or specifically why it’s happening.” But, he added, “what I’m hearing from my constituents is there’s a feeling of unsafety in their neighborhood — and to me that’s really important and concerning.”

District-level crime reports show increases in the number of nearly all offenses reported this year in District 5, which encompasses the Ballpark, Central Ninth, East Liberty Park and Liberty Wells neighborhoods.

Homicides are up 150% in that part of the city, from two in 2019 to five this year. Nonfamily aggravated assault has spiked 79.5% and motor vehicle theft is up 63.5%. Overall, violent crime has jumped 59.6% and property crime is up 26.3% in District 5.

Ballpark Community Council Chair Amy Hawkins expressed concern in an email to state lawmakers late last month following a number of violent crimes in her neighborhood this year, including a May homicide and a shooting death in August.

“It’s clear that Ballpark and Central 9th need a commitment of resources from the state,” which funds social services, she wrote. “We need additional resources for public safety and mental health providers for the disproportionate rise in violent crime that our neighborhood is experiencing, or people in Central 9th and Ballpark will continue to be assaulted and killed at rates we haven’t seen before.”

It’s difficult, Hawkins continued, “to know how to be a voice for optimism and to continue to encourage my neighbors to participate in community advocacy in the face of this.”

“I now frequently see examples of neighbors on social media encouraging each other to take matters of public safety into their own hands and exercise their Second Amendment rights [to own and carry guns],” she added. “This deeply concerns me, but with police response times doubling or tripling or more, it’s hard to know what I can do to convince people to act otherwise.”

State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she’s been in conversation with Hawkins about the issues in her neighborhood and links the increase in crime, in part, to the economic ails of the pandemic, noting that “people are getting desperate.”

“I’m not saying that’s everyone who’s committing certain acts,” she said. “But in desperate times, people are willing to do things they normally wouldn’t do.”

Romero also believes the spikes are related to the growing size of Salt Lake City’s homeless encampments, which have ballooned as many people experiencing homelessness have stayed away from the shelters amid fear of coronavirus outbreaks.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Numerous homeless camps have popped up in downtown Salt Lake City as seen here, Nov. 18, 2020.

“When you see people suffering you see people prey on them, and that’s what I think we’re experiencing now in Salt Lake City,” she said.

Hawkins notes that several of the crimes in District 5 have been committed against people experiencing homelessness, including the May 6 death of Daniel Schulz, which is being treated as a homicide, and the Aug. 12 shooting death of Luis Melendez.

Several of the violent crimes have also allegedly been committed by people experiencing homelessness — including the Sept. 28 killing of Kaitlyn Barron and a Nov. 20 stabbing at a TRAX station on 900 South. The man who was arrested on suspicion of killing Barron was staying at the Men’s Resource Center in South Salt Lake; so was Michael Nimmo, the man who was charged with attempted aggravated murder in last month’s stabbing.

“A lot of these violent crimes are happening to the homeless people in our neighborhood and some of the people who are committing them are also homeless, which is really unfortunate,” Hawkins said. “I would love to accept the argument that unsheltered people are a completely nonthreatening presence in the neighborhood.”

The pandemic has placed major strains not only on individuals but also on institutions.

Jails have been reducing their capacity significantly to stem off coronavirus outbreaks, Brown noted. And the virus has also placed a burden on the police department, which had 70 officers on quarantine leave in October and has had to scale back some of its policing as a result of the pandemic.

“If you look at the precautions that we’ve had to take as a police department, with officers wearing protective masks and gloves and glasses and different things like that, we’ve asked our officers to kind of limit their contact or their proactive work in an effort to preserve our workforce,” he said. “When we’re out doing proactive work, a lot of times that is a deterrent for those that are out there to commit crimes.”

‘Pre-Operation Rio Grande’ levels?

While the spikes in crime could be related to the coronavirus pandemic, some community groups believe there are outside forces at play as well.

The Pioneer Park Coalition, an organization that seeks to address issues related to homelessness and crime in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood, attributes the increases to a spike in drug activity they say has filled the vacuum left by the end of Operation Rio Grande.

That law enforcement campaign deployed dozens of uniformed state troopers to the Pioneer Park neighborhood in a crackdown against lawlessness in 2017. It culminated last year with the closure and razing of The Road Home’s emergency homeless shelter in Rio Grande, and the Utah Highway Patrol pulled its uniformed troopers out of the Pioneer Park area this summer.

Scott Howell, a leader in the Pioneer Park Coalition, says the crime he’s seeing in the area now is reminiscent of “pre-Operation Rio Grande.”

“Clearly some of the outside drug dealers have come back,” he added.

City crime data for the Rio Grande neighborhood, however, actually shows a decline in drug investigations, from 536 in 2019 to 228 in 2020 so far — a 57.5% decrease. Burglary is up, and so is family aggravated assault, but crime overall is down in the area, with a 9.3% decrease in violent offenses and a 5% dip in property crime compared to last year.

Beyond the end of Operation Rio Grande, Pioneer Park Coalition leaders say they’re also concerned that changes to the police budget have diminished resources for public safety.

“A lot of citizens don’t have the statistics on hand but there’s a demonstrable feeling in the city — and really I think it’s throughout major metro areas in the United States this year — that criminals are not being held accountable and so crime is increasing,” said Tyler Clancy, the group’s executive director.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City police officers working the cleanup of a series of campsites in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

Calls to “defund” the police flared up after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis officers in late May. In Salt Lake City, protesters specifically demanded a $30 million cut to the police department’s $84 million proposed budget.

The City Council did make a $5.3 million “cut” when they approved the police budget in June. The action, though, was more of a reshuffling of funds, as the council moved $2.5 million for social workers out of the police department, although those employees remained housed in law enforcement. It also placed $2.8 million in a holding account, which the newly formed Commission on Racial Equity in Policing will recommend how to spend.

The City Council and Commission on Racial Equity in Policing are waiting for an audit of the police department budget before they proceed.

Brown said he thinks budget decisions have had an impact on crime but sees the City Council’s decision to implement a hiring freeze as more of an issue than the shuffling of any dollars. That freeze has been particularly problematic since the city lost 56 officers, some to resignations and others to retirement, amid a nationwide backlash over policing this summer, he said.

“We’re not being able to provide the level of service that we want to and we’re not being able to provide the level of service that our communities deserve,” he said. “And the mayor and myself, we stand together on this fact that we have got to rehire and to build our workforce up to where we were before.”

More than 200 protests against police brutality in Salt Lake City also, in turn, demanded an inordinate amount of police attention this summer and took a lot of resources away from dealing with crimes in other parts of the city, Brown said.

“2020 is the perfect storm,” he said.

City Council Chair Chris Wharton said in a statement that the council is concerned about rising crime and expressed a commitment to “working with the mayor and the police department to explore changes that will allow us to provide the level of service our city’s residents need right now.”

‘All hands on deck’

As the city eyes solutions to this year’s spikes in crime, Mano said that because the root causes are “complex,” confronting them will require a multifaceted effort.

He thinks the mayor’s community commitment program, an approach to addressing homelessness in the city that includes a focus on maintaining clean public spaces and providing outreach to people in encampments, is a “good short-term solution to this problem of safety.”

He also called for adequate funding for the police department and for increased resources directed to District 5, which has been hit especially hard by the crime surge. Bigger-picture solutions, he said, include funding for affordable housing, health care and mental health and addiction services.

“How do you have a stable life if you can’t go to the doctor or have a roof over your head?” Mano said. “Those are the types of situations people go into that lead them into a pathway that might create public safety issues for other people.”

The mayor said the city also needs to increase the number of officers on patrol to stem the tide of rising crime at the same time it reimagines policing through the Racial Justice Commission.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City police at the scene of an report in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

She agreed that other solutions are multifaceted and said the city is already addressing some of those through its work on housing, economic development and small business support.

“There’s a myriad of ways that have been studied and validated over probably four decades now around how to improve the quality of life and the public safety in big cities,” Mendenhall said. “It has to do with economic stability for individuals and families, access to education, transit, transportation access, good jobs, jobs with mobility, access to health care. … And almost every one of those has been adversely impacted by the pandemic that we face this year.”

Romero, the state representative from Salt Lake City, said she’s also working alongside several Democrats in the Legislature to start conversations at the state level about what can be done to address crime and homelessness in the capital city — and she’s hopeful that solutions may come out of the upcoming legislative session.

“This is a growing issue not only in Salt Lake City but across the state,” she said. “It’s going to take all of us working together as elected officials to address this issue.”

The Pioneer Park Coalition, though, doesn’t plan to wait on city and state leaders to address the spikes in crime.

The group is unveiling a new Safe Streets Initiative Thursday, which includes a street-level focus on deterring crime through signage and partnerships with community organizations, kind of like a neighborhood watch program. The second part of the group’s strategy is related to tracking 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, Clancy said.

“We hope it’s an all hands on deck effort,” Clancy said. “We really don’t want to be someone pointing fingers [later] saying woulda, coulda, shoulda — because no one could have predicted the challenges of COVID-19.”

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Leia Larsen contributed to this report