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If Utahns are wise, they will react to recent criticism of its law enforcement operations not as an insulting slur but as a stimulating challenge.

We're referring to the national study showing Utah tied in next-to-last place with four other states with the fewest police per 10,000 residents. West Virginia has fewer law officers on the job.Utah, Kentucky, Minnesota, South Dakota and Washington all have 16 full-time police officers per 10,000 residents. The national average is 24 per 10,000. West Virginia has only 14 per 10,000.

The significant difference can't be explained away by noting Utah's large families - which tend to skew per-capita statistics - or by claiming that the Beehive state has a low crime rate and can get by with fewer officers. Neither situation applies in this case.

While Utah certainly has large families and more young people than other states, it's the young who are more often in trouble with the law. And the study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that the state's per-capita crime rate in 1989 - while slightly under the national average - was still 15th highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Local officials acknowledge the disparity and admit it is a problem. The size of law enforcement agencies is a function of money, and state and local governments are chronically short of cash. Every dollar that goes for police protection has to be taken from some other deserving program.

Streets in Utah cities seem relatively safe - more so than in major urban centers with a higher ratio of police - and most neighborhoods are hardly overrun with crime. But the lack of sufficient police can allow problems to grow that might otherwise be quickly curbed.

Youth gangs are one example of trouble that might be quelled with a heavier police presence, although simply adding more officers is not the only answer in this instance. Other institutions must also play a role, including families and churches.

Opinion polls over the years have shown that Utahns are willing to pay higher taxes for more and better police protection. Ultimately, that's the most realistic way to put more officers on the streets.