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SALT LAKE CITY — The pay raise that Salt Lake police officers received five months ago appears to be helping with retention, Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Chief Mike Brown said Thursday.
"We started to see the recovery really start in July," Mendenhall told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards, noting that the city saw an all-time high of 91 open positions at the end of June 2021.
Whether it was the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wave of protests across the country, many of which called to defund the police, or something else, 130 officers left the Salt Lake City Police Department from January 2020 through September of this year. The raise, which bumped pay by nearly 30% for entry-level officers and 12% for senior-level officers, has put the department on the right track, Mendenhall and Brown said.
But the department still has 57 openings, and both the mayor and the chief said one of the goals in the city's updated, four-step plan to reduce crime is to fill the vacancies by the end of June 2022.
"We are not walking out and saying, 'We simply need more police officers,'" Mendenhall said. "The demands and realities of pressures on quality of life and outright crime that happen in our city and other capital cities across the nation is complex."
In addition to filling vacancies, the overall goals of the plan are to lower crime, improve response times and continue building community relationships.
The plan comes as Salt Lake City, and the entire country, is seeing a wave of violent crime, police calls and a shortage of officers. Consider this:
- In 2020, murders in the U.S. rose by nearly 30%, according to FBI data.
- That same year, homicides in Utah rose 44%.
- Violent crime, which includes murder, assault, robbery and rape, was up nationwide by 5% between 2019 and 2020, according to the FBI.
- In 2019, Salt Lake police had 106,831 calls for service — in 2020 they had 123,350, a 14% increase, according to city data.
- Violent crime in Salt Lake City is up 7% year to date, according to city data.
- The week of Nov. 1 through 7, Utah's capital city had 2,543 calls for service, an increase of 24% over the five-year average, according to city data.
- A survey of over 200 American police departments from the nonprofit think tank Police Executive Research Forum, shows a 45% increase in retirement rates and a 20% increase in resignations in 2020-21 when compared to the previous year.
- Statewide, Mendenhall says departments are down between 600 to 700 officers.
"We've been right on track with these national anomalies, and the violent crime in Salt Lake City, like across the nation, is still up," Mendenhall said, before noting "we're going at a downward direction" with total crime rates. Year to date, overall crime is down 1.7% and property crime is down 2.6%.
Key to the city's plan to curb the increase in violent crime is to hire and retain more officers. "Our patrol numbers are our primary focus right now," Brown said, and on Thursday, he and Mendenhall rolled out several strategies outside of the recent pay raises to do so.
- A $5,000 bonus for certain officers who recruit officers from other departments.
- A proposal to increase the radius of the city's take-home car policy to 60 miles. Currently, officers can only take their cars home if they live within 35 miles of the city's border.
- There is roughly $200,000 in the budget for community-based, diversity training — "This isn't a video that we purchased from a national police training producer. This is working with our community members who can come in and teach our police department about cultural aspects of our really diverse communities," Mendenhall said.
- Growing the city's co-responder program from eight social workers to 20, which will allow almost 24 hours of co-responder coverage, in hopes to ease the burden on existing officers and improve community relations.
- The mayor has requested American Rescue Plan dollars to start a west-side investment fund that she says will allow a co-ownership housing approach between the city and residents, including officers who might be drawn to work in Salt Lake City but can't afford to buy a home. "The average medium cost of a home in Salt Lake County is over $550,000. I'm telling you, although they got a raise, new police officers cannot afford those types of homes, and so they have to live further out from the cities they work in," Brown said.
The idea that hiring more police officers will reduce crime has been the subject of debate. Residents of Austin, Texas, a city that has seen a spike in homicides, recently rejected a ballot measure that would have prompted the hiring of hundreds of police officers, according to the New York Times. Those opposed pointed to homicide increases in cities like Chicago or Atlanta with a rate of police officers per capita that far exceeds Austin.
Meanwhile the Times reported cities with relatively small police departments when compared to overall population, like Raleigh, North Carolina, and El Paso, Texas, saw a decrease in homicides.
The Times also pointed to a survey of criminal justice experts where about two-thirds said that an increased police budget would positively impact public safety. However, 85% said that increased spending on health, education and housing would also improve public safety.
Brown agreed that a holistic approach — not simply bolstering the city's police department — is essential to fighting violent crime.
"Sadly, violent crime is really hard to have an impact on. Because they're crimes of opportunity, passion, anger, and unless you have an officer right there to intervene, it's really hard to have an impact ... to really think law enforcement is gonna solve that is a fallacy. We all need to work together," he said.