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MILLCREEK — Many things have changed since COVID-19 forced stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Crime is one of them.
Law enforcement officers have had to change how they handle criminals and fight crime to avoid exposure and spread of the virus.
The KSL Investigators analyzed how those changes are affecting police, as well as victims of crime who are desperately seeking justice.
'We still have a job to do'
Policing in a pandemic brings risks most officers never expected.
“We’re having to exercise a lot more caution as we go out and interact with the public,” said Detective Kevin Mallory of Unified Police.
The changes most police departments are making include safety measures – both to protect officers and the public.
“We’ve been issued PPE (personal protective equipment), masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, gloves, those kinds of things,” said Mallory. “Just keeping our distance is a big one.”
Despite the pandemic, there’s still a job to do.
“Most of us knew there’d be other risks,” said Mallory. “We didn’t think it’d be something like this, but the expectation doesn’t change.”
For the most part, the workload has been lighter. Since March, the Unified Police Department has seen crime drop in 84% of the categories they track, in comparison to March of last year. Those categories include everything from murder to assault and kidnapping.
Salt Lake City Police Department was also seeing big drops in criminal activity.
However, both departments showed increases in two areas: family offenses, like domestic violence, and business burglaries.
Unified reported a four percent increase in family offenses, while Salt Lake showed a 34% increase compared to this time last year.
Salt Lake also saw a big bump in non-residential burglaries: a spike of 150% in April 2020 compared to March 2020.
Although police in Ogden had seen a decrease in murder, robbery and larceny crimes from the first three months of 2019 compared to the same months in 2020, the department has recorded an increase in rape, aggravated assault and auto theft in that same time.
Repeat burglaries hurting business
Mark Chamberlain owns a storage unit business in Millcreek. That business has been targeted by repeated burglaries, perpetrated by the same suspects.
“Last week, it was six times in seven days,” said Chamberlain.
He installed cameras to catch the identities of the criminals.
“They’re fairly brazen. He’ll stand there and look right at this camera like ‘nothing’s going to happen to me,’” he said.
Chamberlain said he’s tried everything: installing stronger locks and changing the gate code, among other things. Because the burglars are still free, his customers continue to get hit, and then move out.
“It’s killing me,” said Chamberlain. “I’ve lost many good renters.”
Chamberlain said he’s called the police many times over the multiple months of burglaries.
“We have the license plate. We have the description,” said Chamberlain. “The police know their names, yet they just keep coming.”
Chamberlain said police who respond are equally frustrated. They continue to do the work to put criminals in jail, but the pandemic kicks them right back out.
“They’re considered non-violent, and the district attorney has started releasing non-violent criminals,” he added.
The KSL Investigators found Chamberlain’s not wrong.
According to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, the Salt Lake County Jail is holding its fewest number of inmates since 1983.
There were 2,170 inmates at the jail on March 10 — the day before Utah’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. As of April 28, that number has plummeted by 37% to 1,374 inmates housed. More inmates are being released than staying put in jail. Currently, 87% of the jail population was there on felony charges.
A new way to handle criminals
“We’re trying to avoid taking people to jail,” said SLCPD Detective Greg Wilking. He said policing during a pandemic means slowing down the crime-fighting process.
“We can screen charges instead of taking somebody to jail,” said Wilking. “We’re opting to do that as much as possible.”
This includes issuing tickets and educating minor crime suspects, rather than taking suspects to jail.
It’s a new workaround that has developed to keep officers and the public from possible COVID-19 exposure.
“We’re trying to handle it at a low level, so really trying to educate as much as possible,” said Wilking.
That doesn’t mean police aren’t hauling serious criminals to jail. But there is frustration with repeat offenders who aren’t a physical risk to the public. Wilking said that’s a battle police have had to fight since well before the coronavirus outbreak.
If you engage in criminal activity, you’re not going to get a free pass.
–Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney
“These are non-violent offenders, but they are people that disrupt people’s lives,” said Wilking. “We catch them, and we don’t have the ability to really take them off the street.”
For Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, the reasons for keeping the jail population low are two-fold.
“If you engage in criminal activity, you’re not going to get a free pass,” he said.
Because of this focus to incarcerate more dangerous criminals, there’s a need to make sure beds are available.
“Violent offenders, domestic violence, sexual assaults, murder, those are the kinds of cases,” said Gill. “So law enforcement can arrest and put those people in jail.”
The second reason is to promote safe social distancing. Gill said other jails around the country have seen COVID-19 infect as many as 60% of their jail populations. In Salt Lake County, that number is significantly lower.
“Because we were able to reduce those jail numbers down, the infection rate is between 0.39% and 0.45%, which is actually less than the infection rate out in the community,” said Gill.
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Earlier this week, the jail announced they have had no inmate test positive for COVID-19 since April 15.
In the meantime, what can be done to stop the criminals hitting Chamberlain’s business? Gill insisted the wheels of justice are still turning, albeit more slowly.
“[The suspects] have both been charged with felonies,” Gill said.
According to the DA’s office, both suspects have warrants out for their arrest. But if they’re caught, they’ll likely not be held in jail very long, and getting to a verdict and possible sentencing will take longer. That’s because in Salt Lake County, court appearances have been pushed back to June 1 for non-violent offenders.
For now, the alleged burglars are still on the run, but police hope that won’t be the case for much longer.
“Guess what?” said Wilking, “Our officers aren’t as busy. We’re going to find you and take you to jail.”