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Salt Lake promises ‘new game’ in addressing sharp rise in crime

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U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber and the Salt Lake City Police department announce a crime reduction initiative with state and federal partners during a press conference at the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With violent crime up 21% in 2020, property crime up 24% and overall crime up over 23%, Salt Lake City says it has had enough.

“We’re putting our foot down. It’s going to be a new game in Salt Lake City,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said.

On Tuesday, Brown along with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson and Matt Harris, head of the U.S. Marshals in Utah, announced the 2021 Public Safety Plan for the state capital.

At the heart of the strategy is a new partnership with state and federal agencies in Salt Lake City. Huber said there have been local and federal partnerships in the past, “but we have never stood together like this … this is a historic moment.”

The bottom line is that for habitual offenders who seem to be caught in a revolving door at the Salt Lake County Jail, Huber said more federal cases will be filed by his office in Salt Lake City in 2021. The goal, Huber said, is to prosecute “appropriate cases” for “meaningful justice.”

“When I say meaningful justice I’m not talking about catch and release. I’m not talking about hours and days and months (in jail). I’m talking about years in federal prison that matches the seriousness of the crime,” he said.

One of the main tools federal authorities can use to stop what Huber called “chronic lawlessness” is federal firearms charges. According to Deseret News statistics, 79% of the state’s record 103 homicides in 2020 were the result of gunfire.

“The bread-and-butter charges that we have are people who are possessing firearms who have no business possessing firearms,” Huber said.

That could mean people who are dealing drugs and have firearms, people with protective orders against them, illegal immigrants or people who already have multiple convictions.

While Huber’s office typically only takes drug cases that are large in scope and have ties to cartels, he said this year his office would also prosecute “community impact” cases from Salt Lake City.

“If (Salt Lake police) come to my prosecutors and say, ‘Hey, maybe it’s low-level drugs, but he’s distributing drugs on the street, he’s distributing drugs in the homeless camp, he’s distributing drugs in a neighborhood on the south side of Salt Lake City’ — and typically, maybe that’s not a case we’re interested in because we’re looking at the cartel cases — but if a detective comes to me from Salt Lake City and says, ‘This is a community impact case, we need meaningful justice because this guy will not stop,’ that’s a case we’ll take in 2021 in Salt Lake City, Utah,” he said.

“If we cannot provide a safe environment, so many other things fail,” Huber said. “Unlawful conduct without consequence exacerbates street crime challenges in Salt Lake City.”

Mendenhall said the new partnership was prompted not only by crime statistics, but also the messages she has received from residents.

“We will not stand by and allow our residents to continue to be victimized by people that should not be free to roam our city streets,” she said. “We will be surgical in our approach to identify the perpetrators in the city who are committing serious federal crimes that threaten others. ... Their criminal activity is not welcome in Salt Lake City,” the mayor said.

During Tuesday's announcement, Brown showed an example of just one person who was arrested and booked into the county jail nine times in eight months in 2020. The most that person spent in jail at one time was five days, he said.

While Brown said there isn't one factor he can point to that led to the sharp rise in crime in the city last year, both he and the mayor noted that booking restrictions at the jail due to COVID-19 and a growing homeless population that is being preyed upon by criminals has contributed.

“I don’t think we can point to any one thing. But I think the lack of accountability for individuals in our community who know that there is no recourse, there’s no timeout for bad behavior, is perpetuating that violent crime,” Brown said.

Other measures that are part of the new public safety plan include reassigning more officers to patrol duty.

The city will also be working jointly with the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Utah Highway Patrol, to address the problem of illegal street racing that overtook the city’s northwest industrial area last year.

The city has set a goal for 2021 to reduce overall crime and property crime by 10% and violent crime by 5%. To do that, the police department plans to use shared data to better identify crime patterns and trends and develop a more accurate picture of who is committing crimes and where; deploy more targeted patrols in “hot spot” areas; conduct targeted roundups of those with outstanding warrants; and have a renewed committed to the Project Safe Neighborhood Program, a partnership between local, state and federal partners to target the most violent offenders.

Brown acknowledged that the federal and state partnerships are necessary to help achieve the goals the department has set, as his department is down 64 officers as of Nov. 30 due to retirement, resignation and other factors.