Ian Adams: Ethical lapses in news coverage of homicides in Salt Lake City

Tribune and former police chief make unscientific claims about police and homicides.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Police investigate a homicide scene at 300 East Browning Street in Salt Lake City, Dec. 27, 2016.

On October 8, 2021, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story on the historic violent crime increases from 2019 to 2020. Unfortunately, The Tribune chose to use a single opinion on the violent crime surge from former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. In doing so, the Tribune allowed Mr. Burbank to make an irresponsible and unscientific claim – “there is no correlation” between numbers of police officers and community homicides – without challenge.

Burbank is not only wrong but startlingly and scientifically wrong. Across a wide range of scientific disciplines, including criminology, economics and political science, experts have formed a strong consensus that more officers on the street reduces homicides. This is not a controversial point, or shouldn’t be for anyone who has done the most basic research. So why did The Tribune decide to single-source a provably wrong claim of such importance?

The Tribune could have asked the long list of criminologists and economists convened by Professor Jennifer Doleac (Texas A&M) to assess the consensus scientific opinion on whether police affect public safety and violent crime. Or maybe Thomas Abt, former Harvard researcher, a leader within federal and state government offices addressing violent crime, and author of “Bleeding Out.” Or Professor John Pfaff (Fordham University), a reform-minded progressive economist who, on the same day of The Tribune article, wrote: “More police will reduce homicides -- they will, that’s what the data consistently shows.”

Or The Tribune could have consulted any number of criminologists familiar with the recently published work by Professor Aaron Chalfin (University of Pennsylvania) and co-authors in the National Bureau of Economic Research (2020). Those researchers use nearly 40 years of data across 242 U.S. cities, and find that each additional 10 officers abate one homicide. That effect doubles in per capita terms for Black homicide victims.

None of these experts and researchers would fully agree on any number of questions – except one. Can we reduce homicides with more police officers? Yes.

I cannot explain The Tribune’s decision to use a single, unscientific opinion when there are decades of well-supported scientific research to the contrary. Would The Tribune and its journalists feel comfortable writing a story on climate change and only seek the opinion of a climate denier? How about a report on the effects of smoking cigarettes with only a statement from tobacco companies? Why would The Tribune consistently, and in this case only, seek out the opinion of a former chief who was forced to resign after it was discovered he covered up the sexual harassment conducted by his friend and former Deputy Chief Rick Findlay against at least three female subordinates?

While Burbank continues to dissemble and disseminate misinformation, violent crime continues to rise even above the already shocking 2020 rises. In Salt Lake City, homicides in 2021 have risen another 66.7%. Rapes are up 3.5%, family-based aggravated assaults are up 38%, while non-family aggravated assaults are up 30.9%. Overall violent crime is up 16.3% over the five-year average and 10% on 2020 levels alone. The problem was severe in 2020 and has only gotten worse in the meantime. The Tribune has an ethical duty to expand its sourcing when confronting these extraordinary rises in violent crime.

Despite the lack of attention to the data and implications from The Tribune and Burbank, the most significant disparities in criminal justice are in violent crime victimization. While The Tribune allows Burbank to dismiss the never-before-seen increases with unscientific claims because the “numbers are so small,” he forgets the value of a single life, not to mention the incredible trauma that ripples out through friends, families and communities in the wake of a murder. Even if we only consider year-to-date numbers in Salt Lake City, there have been 1,360 victims of violent crime. It’s disturbing to see Burbank toss their pain and lives aside so thoughtlessly, especially when a disproportionate number of those victims are from Black and other minority communities.

Real people are losing their actual lives, and the bulk of the costs of violent crime fall on our minority communities. We need solutions, not lies. Propagandizing the biggest lie — that police don’t reduce violent crime — is unethical and makes progress more difficult.

Ian Adams | Executive Director Utah Fraternal Order of Police

Ian Adams is a criminal justice researcher at the University of Utah and serves as the executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police.