SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City is planning to bring on about 30 new police officers to fill open positions after lifting a hiring freeze it had imposed amid a national reckoning on racial injustice this summer.
The move, which won approval from the Salt Lake City Council earlier this week, follows an uptick in violent crimes last year and the departure of 57 officers from the Salt Lake City Police Department, with the majority quitting and others deciding to retire.
"This is the first step to restore the high level of service the community should expect from our department," Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said.
Proponents contend the overstretched department needs to hire more officers so it can respond to each emergency call. Several critics told the council just before it voted Tuesday that the money would be better used to help the city's homeless and other vulnerable groups, rather than supporting a criminal justice system that they say needs significant reform.
"I agree it's not acceptable," Councilman Chris Wharton replied. But he said he is also troubled by reports from some who said police never showed up after they called 911.
In 2020, reports of crime rose 2% from a year earlier, with violent crime up just over 21%, and property crimes like car burglaries up about 24%, according to the department. Its officers fielded an increase of more than 16,000 calls for service from a year earlier.
City leaders emphasize that the police force isn't tweaking any policies nor increasing its budget to fill the jobs. Savings from attrition will cover the cost, they said.
The council approved the move in a unanimous vote, although one councilman noted its Racial Equity in Policing Commission wasn't included in the discussion.
"I wish we would have done that," Councilman Darin Mano said Tuesday "That's a mistake, I feel like."
Of the 30 officers expected to take part in the training class, he noted, just three are from underrepresented communities.
"I'm disappointed in that and I think we need to do better in hiring new police class officers that better match our community," Mano said.
Darlene McDonald, a member of the commission, said she believes concerns about unjust policing in Utah are valid, but doesn't find fault with the move to fill the empty spots. She said she hadn't had a chance to speak with other members of the panel tasked with making recommendations by July 1, but spoke to the Deseret News on her own behalf.
We are working to make some real positive changes for Salt Lake City, and it's hard work, it really is. Combining public safety and moving police reform forward in a way that's better for everyone, it's going to take some time.
–Darlene McDonald, Racial Equity in Policing Commission member
For the long term, McDonald added, the commission is exploring steps the city should take to recruit a more diverse police force.
"We are working to make some real positive changes for Salt Lake City, and it's hard work, it really is. Combining public safety and moving police reform forward in a way that's better for everyone, it's going to take some time," McDonald said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the new crop of officers will be trained in reforms put in place last year, which include new requirements for body cameras and deescalation tactics.
"This unlocking of frozen positions isn't counter to the work that we're doing with our commission on racial equity and policing," Mendenhall told the Deseret News. "It's every city's fundamental job to ensure that their residents, businesses and visitors are safe. And in order to do that fundamental work, we need enough officers."
The mayor said even though no other police department in Utah faces the same level of pressure and workload as Salt Lake City, there's no shortage of hopeful officers seeking a spot in the city's police academy.
As officers have retired or found other jobs, Brown said the exodus affected not just their ability to serve the city of about 200,000 residents, but it also took a toll on those in uniform.
"It has also increased the stress our officers are under each day," he said.
A memo from his department to the council noted that the low staffing is also due in part to overwhelmed officers declining overtime hours and having to quarantine after testing positive or being exposed to COVID-19.
The Salt Lake Police Association cheered the council's decision on its Facebook page, saying the council "bravely overcame the pressure from the mob and listened to what a majority of their constituents wanted: the best trained, unbiased, impartial, intelligence driven law enforcement officers in the state."
"We applaud their courage, commitment to the city of Salt Lake, and willingness to work with the police department," the union said.
The city's commission on fair policing is holding an event on Thursday, Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. to take input from the public. Those interested can call 888-410-3427 to tune in by phone and visit slcrepcommission.com for more information.