Exclusive: Why police resignations have spiked in Salt Lake City and what happens next

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters march against police brutality in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

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After a year of protests, hiring freezes, a pandemic and rising crime, nearly 60 officers left the Salt Lake City Police Department.

And the majority of them quit.

Some cited mental health issues, burnout and a loss of respect as their reasons for leaving, according to interviews and resignation letters obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a public records request.

In a department of this size, with a budget to support 700 full-time employees, some turnover is to be expected, but 2020 was an anomaly.

In 2018, 49 officers left, and 19 of those quit, while the rest retired. In 2019, 38 officers left, split evenly between resignations and retirements. But in 2020, 57 officers departed and 38 of them — 67% — quit.

Police Chief Mike Brown said the stat reflects how difficult it was to be in law enforcement in 2020.

“Policing is tough and we’ve had some officers either retire or we’ve had younger officers just leave the profession altogether,” Brown said. “I did make some calls to some of the officers ... and they said, ‘Hey chief, I just want to let you know, I don’t know if this career is right for me anymore. I don’t really have the support of my family.’ And without the support of your family, they didn’t feel like they could continue, and so they’ve left policing altogether.”

Salt Lake City is hardly alone. Cities across the country have seen police officer resignations rise in 2020, from Atlanta to Seattle.

This comes as calls to defund police departments — or abolish them completely — echoed through the streets. Demonstrators raged over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, including George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. In Salt Lake City, protesters rallied against police violence for months, focusing not just on cases that captured national attention but on police shootings here as well.

[Read more: Utah Attorney General’s Office ‘surprised’ police shot at so many people in 2020]

Salt Lake City became the epicenter for Utah’s protests, with the police department reporting 270 protests or free speech events in the city from March to November.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police push back protesters in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Brown, along with some rank-and-file officers, knelt with the protesters. The city created a new commission to study policing and how officers interact with people who are minorities.

And the Salt Lake City Council instituted a hiring freeze as just one response to the protests and the budget uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. The department hired 18 patrol officers recently who had already received job offers before the hiring freeze came down.

The council plans to discuss lifting the hiring freeze this month, concerned about the loss of officers and the rise in crime, and has added a request to hire more police to its latest budget amendment.

Even if the freeze is lifted, police spokesperson Keith Horrocks said it takes about 18 months to train new officers and get them prepared to work a shift on their own. In other words, there’s no easy or quick fix.

“We’re going to work through it,” Horrocks said. “I don’t think that [the resignations are] cause for alarm, but it is something that is concerning.”

In a request to replace departed officers late last month, the police department struck a more urgent tone.

“The community deserves excellence, not adequate service,” the department said, “and we are not even at adequate.”

Why officers left

At some of the Salt Lake City protests this year, activists carried derogatory signs aimed at officers. They chanted “No good cops in a racist system.” They’d get right in officers’ faces and yell that they should quit.

Some officers listened.

“Part of why I left was out of a desire to keep my family safe,” said one officer who requested anonymity because he worried about anti-police sentiment. “There are a lot of people who really don’t like it if you are or were a cop.”

The officer quit this summer after wearing his badge for a year. He now works in construction.

“I was new enough into it that I figured, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t the right career path for me,’” he said. “Salt Lake, it seems like they’re one of the first places to adopt new policies and changes. That’s probably a good thing, but it’s challenging if you have to be the guinea pig.”

After the summer’s protests, the mayor and the Salt Lake City Council introduced a number of reforms. The changes included funds for body-worn cameras on all officers and penalties for police who fail to activate them. While most officers were already wearing them, the department didn’t have enough for everyone, and some older cameras needed to be replaced.

The council also placed $2.8 million of the police budget in a holding account. It’s now dissecting the department’s spending to determine whether it can make further cuts.

The city formed a Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, and in 2021 expects to introduce more police reforms based on the commission’s recommendations.

Then there’s the hiring freeze, which applies to all city employees but City Council Chair Chris Wharton acknowledged had unintended ripple effects for law enforcement.

“We understand a lot of facts on the ground have changed since,” the council adopted the policy, Wharton said.

In an interview, an officer named Anthony said he was among the rank and file who felt the department didn’t support them. He quit over the summer and requested The Tribune use only his first name to protect his future job prospects.

“Our mayor and our chief are kneeling with the protesters versus standing with us,” Anthony said, “while we’re out there protecting and serving.”

Anthony was among the officers who were upset with how Brown and Mendenhall reacted to controversies. Brown called the actions by an officer who pushed down an elderly man during a May 30 protest “inappropriate.” Mendenhall called revelations that some officers used dogs in arrests improperly a “stain on our department.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown takes a knee as he shows his support of demonstrators protesting against police brutality on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

Anthony also said he didn’t agree with the department’s handling of larger protests, including the May 30 demonstration in which some protesters flipped and burned a police car and graffitied the state Capitol.

City leaders wouldn’t let officers respond until hours into the protest and only after the police cruiser had been flipped and torched.

“We were told to just sit back and let them vent, which, you know, that’s not why we become police officers,” he said.

He worries about the officers still on the job, dealing with a heavy workload made heavier by officers like him who left. He worries about the implications as crime rises.

Horrocks said the department tried to help officers how it could — by buying equipment better-suited for hot weather, bringing in snacks and drinks during the protests and listening to officers’ concerns.

“It is important to the chief that his officers feel like they have a voice in what we’re doing,” he said, “and he also understands that there’s a good reason for certain reforms and changes to the way police do things.”

In its request to the City Council, the police department called the number of officer departures since July “unprecedented.”

A review of 26 resignation letters, obtained through an open records request, provides some insights into why officers quit in 2020.

Many of the letters were straightforward, noting an intent to resign and suggesting a final day of employment. Several included positive notes.

“I wish the department success in these trying times and hope all officers stay safe,” wrote one departing officer in late July.

Others, however, expressed frustration and moral quandaries.

For instance, a self-described “new officer” said he was honored to work at the department but never felt confident in his role.

“I have just been thinking a lot about having this be my long term career,” he wrote, “and I do not see myself enduring it for the long haul.”

Fewer officers, more crimes

Department data shows violent crime rose 21.6% in the city and property crimes are up 24.9% when comparing 2020 to 2019, according to a Tribune analysis. Calls for service spiked to more than 113,700 in Salt Lake City through November 2020, compared to about 97,700 the year before. That has some residents demanding city leaders do more to improve public safety.

Even though the department just graduated 18 new patrol officers and is moving about 20 more to patrol to help with the spike in crime, Horrocks said the department is still understaffed. It could take longer to solve crimes because fewer detectives are doing investigative work.

Because police work means more risk of exposure to COVID-19, the police department also had to grapple with officer quarantines in 2020 that left them further short staffed, even as officers worked overtime to aid in the city’s pandemic response.

The hiring freeze doesn’t help matters.

“I’m aware, I think everybody’s aware of the shortage that we have,” said Wharton, the council chair. “If the situation is as serious as it seems to be based on what I’m hearing from residents, what I’m reading in the newspaper and what I’m hearing from staff, I think council members will want to work quickly” to remedy the situation.

Mendenhall declined an interview request, but provided a statement.

“I’m disappointed that we’ve seen such high turnover this year,” the mayor wrote. “It’s a difficult time to be a police officer, and circumstances over this past year have made the job more challenging. But I’m optimistic that we will continue to attract and retain top-quality law enforcement officers who want to work for the best department in the state.”

The mayor added that the city’s human resources team is working with the police department to recruit and retain officers interested in serving the city with “integrity and equity.”

Although the City Council is now walking a delicate line between answering the calls for better police oversight and addressing the rising crime, not to mention calls from law enforcement for more funding and to drop the hiring freeze, Wharton said elected officials are listening.

“Any residents who have strong feelings or have experiences, whether it’s a decreased level of service that they’re unhappy with or they’re concerned about what impacts this will have on reform efforts, I hope those residents will contact the council,” he said, “and let us know their thoughts.”

Members of the public can provide feedback about the police department by emailing council.comments@slcgov.com, by calling 801-535-7654 or by looking up the contact information of individual council members at slc.gov. Residents can also provide comments during the City Council’s next formal meeting and budget hearing Jan. 19.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this story.