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FOX 13 Investigates: SLCPD response times lag amid officer shortage

Posted at 9:48 PM, May 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-24 14:49:48-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A FOX 13 investigation has revealed Salt Lake City police consistently respond too slow to the most urgent 911 calls, as the department continues to feel the strain of being understaffed.

Not including the division of officers assigned to work at Salt Lake City International Airport, SLCPD is currently understaffed by 77 officers.

The department confirmed additional officers plan to leave in the coming weeks, bringing the total of understaffed officers to 84.

SLCPD’s staffing problem has gotten so bad, the union representing officers indicated it cannot, in good conscience, guarantee the safety of citizens.

Although data released by SLCPD shows average response times have gotten faster over the past few months, that is not what FOX 13 found when reviewing individual cases.

Suspected rape in progress – 28 minutes

A group of three called Salt Lake City 911 on March 30 when their “girl’s night” at the Little America Hotel was interrupted by screaming.

“It was the kind of scream that was just bone chilling,” said witness Burgon Blackner. “She was screaming things like, ‘Help! It hurts! Don’t touch me there! Someone help me!’”

“She was as desperate as could be,” described witness Karina Whiting. “You cannot argue that it was anything other than a sexual assault, rape.”

FOX 13 obtained an audio recording of the 911 call.

“We’ll be out there as soon as possible,” the dispatcher said.

By the time officers arrived, 28 minutes later, the screaming had stopped. They could not find a suspect or victim.

“She was failed by a system that’s supposed to be supporting, that’s supposed to save lives,” Whiting said. “There was an opportunity to save a girl, and the ball was dropped on that.”

“This woman, all I want to do is find her and hug her,” Blackner said. “I want to tell her it’s going to be okay, because that’s what I wish I had in that situation. She needs that support, and she didn’t get it. She didn’t get any justice.”

Sergeant Keith Horrocks, a public information officer for SLCPD, said the call was classified as simply a “disturbance” and given a “Priority 2” designation.

Priority 2 calls are the second-most urgent calls fielded by law enforcement.

Priority 1 calls are often described as a “crime in progress.”

According to SLCPD policy, both Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls require “immediate attention.”

Sgt. Horrocks stated, based on the information available at the time, the Priority 2 designation was correct because 911 callers did not have specific information pertaining to the location of the suspected crime.

“Not to minimize yelling or screaming in the middle of the night in the city, but it does happen from time to time,” Sgt. Horrocks said. “It could have been anything. It could have been, you know, whatever.”

“I think there’s no excuse to not call that a Priority 1,” countered Blackner. “Especially when there is someone being sexually assaulted… There’s no excuse that they couldn’t get out of their cars and look around, at least.”

“The thing that we’re missing there, is you’re going to need more details in order for dispatch to prioritize it (higher),” Sgt. Horrocks said. “Barring any further proof or evidence that – oh, I see somebody down there raping somebody – that’s where it would change. That’s a Priority 1, because now we know that’s a crime in progress.”

Assault on elderly woman – 1 hour, 5 minutes

Mike Denos was driving in the area of 300 South 600 East when he called 911 to report an unprovoked assault on an elderly woman.

“Fist right across the side of her face,” Denos described. “She was probably 5 foot, gray haired, 90 pounds.”

The woman’ crying can be heard on the recorded 911 call, as Denos tried to comfort her.

Denos handed his phone to additional witnesses, who provided information to dispatchers.

Two men jumped out of a pickup truck to chase after the suspect.

“We probably need police here quickly,” Denos told the dispatcher. “We have a camera at the building as well that saw it.”

“It looks like I do have officers on the way,” the dispatcher said.

SLCPD responded 1 hour, 5 minutes later.

The witnesses and victim were not there upon arrival.

Officers proceeded to close the case without looking at surveillance video.

“When I left, I finally thought – they’re not coming!” Denos said. “And so as the day wore on, I was frustrated. Seeing something like this, this sweet lady getting assaulted, and the police agency cannot respond.”

“They were preempted from the call to another call that was higher priority,” said Sgt. Horrocks.

Detective Michael Ruff later clarified that the call was designated as a Priority 1.

According to SLCPD policy, there is nothing higher priority than a Priority 1 call.

“Priority 1 could be life or death, right?” asked FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets.

“Right, yeah,” responded Sgt. Horrocks.

Denos said he was dismayed with the lack of response, but he does not blame the officers themselves.

“The women and men in uniform, we care for them. Many of us support them, but we also need them to be quick responders to the situation,” he said. “I do not want to see people with bats in their cars to protect themselves!”

Threat of a mass shooting threat – 5+ hours

Employees at The Stockist, a specialty clothing store in downtown Salt Lake City, were mistaken when they thought police would respond quickly to the threat of a mass shooting in April.

It all started with a customer who refused to wear a mask.

“He mentioned he was going to come back with his gun and shoot the place up,” described employee Josh Edgar. “My mind just went to Atlanta, and Denver, and everywhere else where there’s been a mass shooting as of late… Could this be it for me? What if this guy is 10 minutes away? What if he’s just going to his car and grabbing his gun?”

Employees said they were upset waiting, not sure whether police would arrive before the angry customer.

They closed the store for the day.

“My daughter comes into the store after school, so this needs to be a safe place for everyone,” said owner Helen Wade. “I was appalled. I was devastated and appalled and terrified for my employees… Now I have to sit down and figure out what we need to do to keep (the store) safe.”

Sgt. Horrocks said the case was appropriately labeled as a Priority 2, not a “crime in progress.”

“It’s a high priority still, but it’s not something that we have to make sure cops are getting there as soon as the first available cop becomes available,” he said.

“But if (the suspect) is coming back?” asked Herbets.

“Yeah, exactly,” Sgt. Horrocks said. “But he’s not there.”

SLCPD downgraded the case from a Priority 2 to a Priority 4 after employees shut down the store.

A higher-ranked officer later bumped the case back up to a Priority 2.

More than five hours passed before officers responded.

Sgt. Horrocks said the slow response time is partly because the employees did not call 911 sooner, waiting until the suspect had left the store before calling.

“It does get kind of forgotten, because we have a lot going on,” Sgt. Horrocks said. “There were 62 calls been noon and 2:00 that day.”

SLCPD average response times

In response to a public records request filed by FOX 13, SLCPD spent 19 days compiling its average response time data.

According to the Government Records and Management Act, governmental entities are legally required to respond to public record requests from members of the media within five business days.

According to the data, the fastest average response time for Priority 1 calls was 7 minutes, 31 seconds in November 2020.

The slowest average response time for Priority 1 calls was 18 minutes, 36 seconds in August 2020.

Sgt. Horrocks said the department’s goal is to respond to Priority 1 calls within four to five minutes.

According to the data, the fastest average response time for Priority 2 calls was 11 minutes, 3 seconds in April 2020.

The slowest average response time for Priority 2 calls was 31 minutes, 52 seconds in October 2020.

Chris Bertram, the former deputy chief of Unified Police Department, joined FOX 13 in reviewing the data.

“It’s unacceptable. You can’t have a Priority 1 or Priority 2 call not being responded to for 20 minutes, or 30 minutes, or 40 minutes,” Bertram said. “Makes me sick to my stomach to think about that… An innocent person that should have received that response is going to be the victim of a crime, and you in the media are going to tell everybody about it. This is the reason you’re doing the story. It’s already happening! What are we doing about it?”

Bertram said he believes SLCPD has a moral obligation to inform citizens of the slow response times, so they can make an informed decision about their level of safety.

“I would expect my public officials – my elected officials – to tell me this. I would expect my police department administration to tell me this,” Bertram said. “We’ve got to look at where is the failure.”

Joe McBride, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, said he and his fellow officers are deeply troubled by the data.

He believes the city is not safe.

“When you don’t have enough officers, you don’t police. That’s the problem,” McBride said. “There’s no concern from the criminals in Salt Lake City right now… There’s a mental toll that it’s taking on officers, knowing that people are getting hurt and us not being able to get out there. There’s been an effect on morale because of that.”

McBride also blamed the lack of officer morale on Chief Mike Brown, stating he has not done enough to make officers feel that they are supported.

SLCPD said Chief Brown was too busy to interview with FOX 13.

“Sometimes you can’t control who you work for,” said Sgt. Horrocks. “Unfortunately for some of our officers, that has meant going to another department. I know that our police chief has wished them well. Would he like to keep those officers? Absolutely. Is he thinking about that? I think he is.”

Although average response times are significantly slower than the department would like, SLCPD believes the data has improved over the past few months due to fewer calls for service, fewer protests, and more officers getting COVID-19 vaccinations.

“We need to do better,” acknowledged Sgt. Horrocks. “But I think we are getting to that point… These are folks that are in crisis, and they need help.”

SLCPD and the police union agree, things may get worse before they get better. There is almost always a spike in 911 calls as temperatures get warmer.

The plan to eventually replace a total of 84 officers is unclear, with only 24 potential replacements currently being trained at the academy.

Salt Lake City Council Chair Amy Fowler released the following statement in response to FOX 13's investigation.

"It is distressing to hear of any victim of a crime and a slow response time by the Police Department," Fowler wrote. "The shortage of officers is a top priority as we review the Mayor’s recommended budget for PD and the City as a whole.”

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