Somehow, the woman had scaled the side of an apartment building, onto a balcony and ended up inside where she was found rummaging through the residents’ belongings.
Salt Lake police officers were on their way to another call that had been waiting a fair amount of time already, but they decided a trespass in progress was probably more urgent.
This is the daily reality for an understaffed police department with officers going from “call to call to call” essentially all day. Some have to wait.
Officers already had the woman in cuffs by the time the Deseret News arrived. A reporter tagged along earlier this month to observe some of the calls Salt Lake police officers were responding to that morning.
Standing in the August sun baking the hot asphalt, the officers looked up at the apartment building, trying to figure out how she managed the climb. Maybe she was “spider woman,” one joked.
One officer, who asked not to be named so he could speak frankly, stepped aside out of earshot from his colleagues to talk to the Deseret News.
The question: What’s it been like being a Salt Lake police officer over the past year and a half?
“It’s been rough,” he said flatly.
It wasn’t just the 300 or so protests that pummeled Salt Lake City in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota in May 2020. Yes, the political environment has been harsh, but in general, he said, he feels supported by Salt Lake residents.
The real morale killer, the officer said, has been “the lack of support that a lot of officers have been seeing from the mayor’s office and the chief’s office.”
The officer’s comments came a little more than a month after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced a 30% pay raise for entry-level Salt Lake police and a 12% increase for senior-level officers — a move the mayor called a “bold market adjustment” to make the capital city’s department a competitive agency that doesn’t keep losing officers.
“The raise did help a little,” the officer said. “It’s still the same problem with more pay.”
He said some of his fellow officers have agreed to come back, “but not enough.”
“We don’t get lunches,” he said. “We’re still going call to call to call.”
‘Morale is more than just money’
Framed in Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown’s office is a simple white piece of paper with the definition of “police chief” printed in plain text.
“Police chiefing is as easy as riding a bike,” it says, “… except the bike is on fire, you’re on fire, everything is on fire, and the fire is on fire.”
Brown chuckled softly as he picked it up from the dozens of other mementoes sitting on his office shelves.
“Yeah, I put that in a frame,” he said, laughing.
But through the humor, his voice held a hint of seriousness.
“It’s a rough job.”
The chief’s comments came after a recent sit-down with the Deseret News at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, where he described the city’s scramble to hire as many police officers as possible to fill about 70 vacancies.
Through it all, Brown is very aware of the morale issue facing his police department. He and his boss, Mendenhall, say they know money alone won’t fix it.
“Money helps,” the chief said. “But they need to have the support. They need to hear the support and they need to feel supported. I’ve tried very hard … but I’ll tell you. There is no playbook for what we went through last year.”
The mayor said the same.
“Morale is more than just money,” Mendenhall said. “Money is only one piece of the morale conversation.”
One hundred and thirty-five.
That’s how many police officer positions that were unavailable to answer calls of service in Salt Lake City as of the end of July — nearly a quarter of the police department.
Here’s a breakdown:
- While the city has authorized 589 positions, including 66 officers at Salt Lake City International Airport, only 454 were available to answer the call of duty as of July 27, according to police department records.
- Of those, 69 are simply empty, lost to retirements or resignations.
- Now add in 10 officers on active military leave.
- Thirty-six positions have been filled by new recruits, but they’re still in training. Most of those, 19, won’t be ready to hit the streets until December.
- The remaining 20 positions are unfunded, which if staffed is meant to act as a buffer to replace retiring or resigning officers.
In short? Salt Lake City is still scrambling to hire police officers after a grueling year for the department.
Just like in any job, turnover is expected. But 2020 was different. The police department saw the departure of 57 officers, 67% of whom quit. In 2019, the agency saw 38 officer retirements or resignations.
It’s a familiar story for large police departments across the nation.
Police retirements were up 45% and resignations rose 18% in the period between April 2020 and April 2021 compared with the preceding 12 months, according to a Police Executive Research Forum survey of about 200 police departments across the nation. The percentage of officers who left tended to be larger for departments in big or medium-size cities.
In New York, 2,600 officers retired in 2020, compared to 1,509 retirements the year before, The New York Times reported. In Portland, Oregon, 69 officers resigned and 75 retired from April 2020 to April 2021. In Seattle, resignations rose to 123 from 34, and retirements to 96 from 43.
The backdrop for these resignations and retirements nationwide is blaring. Protests erupted nationwide in wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis by a police officer. His murder sent shockwaves across the country, sparking protests and demands to “defund the police” and to root out systemic racism.
Salt Lake City — with its share of high-profile police shootings including the killing of 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal on May 23, 2020 — saw the brunt of the fallout in Utah. The capital city, like many capitals across the nation, was swarmed with more than 300 protests.
It was an unforgiving political climate.
“We started to see it probably in June and July,” Brown said. “People were starting to pick up and retire. And then we started to see some of the resignations.”
Brown said as he interviewed some of those departing officers he was told: “‘You know, chief, I just feel like right now is a really trying time in law enforcement. It’s putting more pressure on my family and kids … and I just feel like it’s time for me to go seek another profession.’”
“I couldn’t argue with them. It was a tough time,” said Brown, who spoke last July about his own personal toll from 2020 with the death of his 87-year-old father.
“But I started to see that more,” Brown said, adding that even some of the newer police officers started leaving to go to nearby agencies in Salt Lake County.
The impact on public safety
Salt Lake police response times have lagged while calls for service have increased. Average response times for Priority 1 calls — deemed most urgent — went from 11 minutes in January up to a high of a little over 14 minutes in May, according data provided by the department. As of July, Priority 1 calls had an average response time of 13 minutes.
Lower priority calls are getting even slower response times. Priority 2 call response times went from about 16 minutes in January to about 22 minutes in July. The average for the least urgent calls went from about 43 minutes in January to over an hour and 21 minutes in June. Those Priority 3 calls were still lingering at nearly one hour and 20 minutes as of July, according to the department’s data.
Meanwhile crime is still up.
Citywide, violent crimes are up 9.8% from 2020 and represent a 12.7% increase from the five-year average, according to July Salt Lake police data. Homicide figures are double from last year. So far in 2021, Salt Lake City has 10 criminal homicide cases, up from five in 2020. That’s an increase of 72.4% from the five-year average of 5.8.
All this while Salt Lake City leaders were facing calls by some to “defund.”
In a recent City Council meeting, Councilman James Rogers asked Brown what would happen if the city were to cut half of the department’s staffing. Brown paused before answering.
“It would be chaos,” the chief said. “We couldn’t do the work we’re doing. I can’t even contemplate what that would look like, sir.”
Rogers thanked him, saying he only asked to have Brown’s answer on record. The council has not moved to defund the police department, but rather approved funding for 12 social workers to be accompanied by police on calls related to mental health.
Mendenhall has also refused to defund, saying she does not “believe it’s productive in achieving our goals of equity and greater public safety.”
Has the pay raise made a difference?
By mid-July, a handful of police officers that left signaled they’d come back after the pay raise was announced, Brown told the City Council in a recent meeting. In the first 12 days of July alone, 53 have applied for new entry-level positions.
“I can tell you that in speaking with several former officers, there is a sense of excitement about returning to Salt Lake City,” Brown told the council.
The chief is optimistic about staffing levels, noting during his interview that in addition to the three dozen recruits in training, the agency is expecting another class of about 10 to 13 officers to start training at the end of this month, plus another 12 to 15 hires from other agencies who would only take about two weeks of Salt Lake City training before hitting the streets.
“If the stars align,” Brown said, Salt Lake City could be on track to be down only six to nine officers by January.
“This is good,” he said. “Seriously, when you start to look at what has happened since (the pay raise), this is a good turn of events for us.”
What else needs to be done?
If you ask Ian Adams, executive director of Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police, it will “never” be just about money. Or even the protests.
The real issue, Adams said, is a lack of “political support” trickling down from those in leadership. From the mayor, from the City Council, and from the chief.
“I’ve talked to hundreds of officers over the last year here locally,” Adams said. “Not one said they were thinking about leaving a city or profession because of the protests. They didn’t (want to leave) a difficult, physically demanding profession because things got difficult and physically demanding.
“They left,” he continued, “because of the promise of political support and patience and due process was yanked out from under them. And they knew that they could go somewhere else and find it again. So why wouldn’t you?”
The Salt Lake City pay raise, Adams said, spurred other cities to raise their officers’ pay. Soon after Salt Lake City, West Valley City — Utah’s second-largest city — matched and surpassed Salt Lake’s increase. Adams said he would not be surprised to see South Jordan, Draper and Sandy and Murray also move to increase officer pay, too.
With other cities “reacting quickly to be at the forefront of the labor pool,” Adams said now it’s on Salt Lake City leaders to make the capital city “a place worth staying. Because those officers can still go other places and get paid slightly more.”
“That’s a significant pay raise,” Adams said. “I think it was seen as a legitimate effort by the City Council to pave over some of the past mistakes and say, ‘We know we need to support these guys at least monetarily.’ Now the question is can they continue to build a sense of organizational justice and political support.”
Adams pointed to some instances that he said particularly demoralized Salt Lake police. One was soon after the body camera footage of Palacios-Carbajal’s shooting was released. Councilwoman Amy Fowler, a trial attorney and former public defender, in a Facebook post said he was “unlawfully killed.” The Salt Lake County district attorney later deemed it justified.
While city leaders were responding to demands for change, Adams said, they didn’t show enough support for their own police officers.
The Salt Lake police officer who spoke to the Deseret News said if he could send a message to Mendenhall and Brown, it would be this:
“Just be there for your officers. Show support. … Obviously the (pay raise) was a good thing. That helped a lot. Now we have guys that can go get their own apartments. But on the other hand, let’s check their well-being. Let’s check their mental health. They’re going call to call to call. In two days, you’re burned out. Then you still have two days left. So check on your officers. Ask, ‘Hey, are you OK? Is there anything you need? Anything I can do?’ Which is probably not going to be much. But it’s just the thought, that they’re being thought of.”
Mendenhall said she and her office is working to improve relationships with police officers while also working to foster the “best police department.” She frequently visits the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building to attend lines and talk to officers to wish them well on their shifts and hear their feedback face to face. Additionally, as part of recent budget discussions the city has been working to hire a full-time, on-site mental health clinician for police officers.
“A sincere, consistent and authentic engagement with our officers from the mayor’s office, and through every neighborhood street corner and business front door, is where the real work needs to happen,” Mendenhall said. “What is our relationship, and how are we evolving as a people, as an American society to be more just and more safe? It’s on every one of us to not stand still.”
Brown said he understands the pressures his department’s staffing issues have placed on officers, so he’s working to hire as many police officers as possible to help. Beyond that, the chief said he’s been working to meet with officers one-on-one more to check in with them and what they need.
“Have we made some mistakes? Yes. Have I not done everything I possibly could? Not intentionally, but there are some things I could have done better. … It’s been a great opportunity to meet with the officers, and let them know how much I support them.”
What about police morale in the rest of Utah?
While Adams said the Salt Lake City Police Department went from a “sense of urgency to a sense of crisis” in 2020, the other 130 or so police agencies in Utah “have not experienced the same sharpness of the crisis Salt Lake City did in terms of recruitment and retention.”
In general, Adams said, police feel supported by their fellow Utahns. A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found 82% of Utahns say they trust their local police department.
Take what happened in Ogden.
As protests rocked many cities last summer, hundreds of people lined the streets of Ogden to pay tribute to Ogden police officer Nate Lyday, who was shot and killed May 28 while responding to a domestic violence call.
The week of Lyday’s funeral, Ogden Police Chief Eric Young said some of his officers officers volunteered to assist Salt Lake City during one of its most rancorous weeks of protests.
“I mean, this wasn’t a peaceful protest,” Young said. “It was a riot. It was disgusting. There were objects being thrown. Police officers being hit with objects, having things sprayed in their faces. So I think that was probably being a little more troubling being in the middle of that. Certainly not something we would want to subject our officers at a time when they’re struggling and hurting and grieving.”
But while that was a tough time, Young said Ogden officers generally feel supported. There were protests in Ogden, he said, “but they were very, very respectful.”
“We have an administration, we have a mayor and a City Council that are extraordinarily supportive. … We’re held accountable and we have expectations like any other police department, but they appreciate and they support our police officers, and they feel that.”
Young said Ogden police officers get a “regular dose” of appreciation from Ogden residents. Maybe at the drive-thru they pull up and find their lunch has already been paid for.
“Those are things that never make it to the media,” he said. “But those are the kind of things that do happen on a regular basis, the everyday average person who does support law enforcement.”
Young said he’s “proud” of Ogden, which he called a “good example of how a city can build the right culture” by supporting its officers while also having “a standard of accountability.”
“I think that’s an environment or a culture that’s going to have to grow around this country to get policing back to the staffing levels and the support we need.”