SALT LAKE CITY — After hearing complaints from Liberty Wells residents about how police dispatchers have been fielding crime reports in their neighborhood, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has a message for residents.
"We heard you, and we're on it," she said in a Facebook post on Thursday.
The mayor said she talked with Scott Freitag, the city's 911 department director, and they "will be making changes."
"Thank you to residents who came out and let us know how we can improve," the mayor wrote.
Residents during a Liberty Wells Community Council meeting this week expressed concerns about dispatchers refusing to take reports about burglaries by phone and instead directing them to file reports online.
Among those residents was Megan Buhler, a homeowner of 11 years, who explained how both her and her husband's wallets were stolen within days apart. When hers was stolen, she said the thief broke her car window to get to her bag, and it left her feeling unsafe.
However, when Buhler called the city's 801-799-3000 number, she said dispatchers would not take her report by phone and told her she would need to file it online.
Buhler said she did report the burglary online, but she didn't think the form allowed her to report all of the circumstances around the theft since the crime also included vandalism.
"I reported it as a burglary, but since (the thief) also broke my window in the middle of the day, I don't think it was representative statistically of what happened to me," she said.
Concerns in Liberty Wells and other neighborhood communities have intensified since the Aug. 14 launch of Operation Rio Grande, the state, city and county effort to root out lawlessness and drug activity in Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood around downtown's homeless shelter.
The effort, however, has dispersed crime and homelessness issues into their neighborhoods, residents say — an issue state and city leaders say wasn't unexpected and they have urged neighbors to report all issues so they can follow drug dealers and other criminals.
We want to encourage the public that when they see something they should say something, whether that's calling in or using the online site.
But when Liberty Wells residents complained that the dispatch number they were told to call for all nonemergency Operation Rio Grande issues wasn't resulting in enough response, Biskupski said the complaints left her "disheartened" and "disturbed."
Biskupski said in her post that she and Freitag will be "making changes to ensure no call is directed to a website" and she said her office will be "expediting the hiring" of new nonemergency dispatchers to help with calls.
The mayor's spokesman Matthew Rojas said Friday that the mayor takes the complaints seriously and she's asked Freitag to review how nonemergency calls are handled and "come up with a plan" to address concerns while leaving the online reporting system an option.
"We want to encourage the public that when they see something they should say something, whether that's calling in or using the online site," Rojas said. "While sometimes online is the better option, they should always feel free to call and know they will receive service. That's really important for the mayor."
Freitag said over the next week his team will be reviewing all calls and reports since Operation Rio Grande's Aug. 14 launch and listen to dispatchers' takes to hear what situations the frustrations might be stemming from.
Freitag suspects, however, that the "script" dispatchers have been using to encourage residents who are reporting certain nonemergency crimes like thefts to use the online system has been "assertive" and might not be leaving residents feeling like they have the option to talk with an officer.
Freitag said police officers, in an effort to be more efficient, have said they prefer those calls to be filed online because "it's a much quicker and more efficient way" to file a report "rather than wait for an officer who's going to do the same thing."
"But perhaps that efficiency has taken away some good customer service," Freitag said.
"The good news is the calls are being answered," Freitag added. "But we understand that the process we were using to direct people to online reporting is extremely frustrating, and we will rectify that."
Freitag said overall calls in Salt Lake City haven't increased since the beginning of Operation Rio Grande, but what did increase was radio traffic, he said, requiring a new staff position to monitor the Operation Rio Grande radio channel.
Last year, Biskupski's administration began working to reform the city's 911 system after hearing frustrations from dispatchers about call volume and mandatory overtime. A year ago, she and the City Council budgeted for 10 more dispatchers, and this year's Fourth of July and July 24 holidays were the first holidays in years that didn't require mandatory overtime, Rojas said.
Three more nonemergency dispatchers have been budgeted for this year, Rojas said, which Freitag expects to be hired by the end of the year. Freitag said those positions will "help significantly" with his employees' workload.