SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City and County law enforcement and court leaders spoke straight to residents in the Ballpark neighborhood Thursday night, about safety issues in the area.
While neighbors voiced concerns about issues like drug use, homelessness and violent crime, the focus turned away from what people are seeing outside their windows and shifted to looking at other steps in the system.
Those in attendance included Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Matt Dumont (who oversees the Corrections Bureau), and Judge John Baxter with Salt Lake City's Homeless Court.
The issues talked about over the course of the evening ranged from problems residents experience outside their homes on a frequent basis, to an explanation of the city's Homeless Court system.
A Revolving Door
Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and Chief Deputy Matt Dumont talked about the situation at the jail, especially for people who are arrested over and over.
Chief Deputy Dumont interviewed with Fox 13 ahead of the meeting, detailing the complexity of their challenges.
"We're not keeping as many people inside the jail that we normally would," he said.
He explained that Covid cut the jail capacity down by about a third, to keep inmates and staff safe.
Prior to Covid, he said the population averaged about 2,100 inmates. That number is now averaging around 1,300, he said.
About 100 people a day were being booked into jail pre-Covid, but Dumont said that has now been cut in half.
Somewhere around 100 people were being released pre-Covid each day as well, he said, though that number has also been cut in half.
That means if someone calls the police about a safety issue in the Ballpark neighborhood, police may respond and arrest someone, but then that person can end up released hours later-- going back to the same community and potentially committing additional crimes.
Chief Mike Brown explained at Thursday's meeting that officers can end up arresting the same person several times over.
Inmates can be released for a few reasons. Dumont detailed how most-- 86 percent-- are released on court orders, through community supervision or to another agency.
The other 14 percent walk out on what's called an "overcrowding release," or OCR.
Those released on an OCR have often been charged with less serious misdemeanor crimes, Dumont indicated, like retail theft, public intoxication, trespassing or drug possession.
"We need to make sure that we have room in the jail to keep the folks who are truly a danger to our community," Chief Deputy Dumont said.
That means saving space for those charged with violent felony crimes. Because Covid has delayed court dates, Dumont said they're seeing a backlog in serious cases.
With cases taking longer to resolve, he described how it is potentially keeping those inmates in jail for longer as the inmates work through the system at a slower pace.
Dumont said 90 percent of the jail is now filled with people charged with felony crimes.
Less than 10 percent of inmates are facing misdemeanors.
While it's important for the jail to keep the most serious offenders behind bars, Dumont acknowledged that they are trying to address the issue of people being arrested by police over, and over, and over for less serious crimes.
Sheriff Rivera and Chief Deputy Dumont both said they are working with the city to see what can be done.
Chief Brown added at one point that it doesn't help to try to arrest their way out of the situation, especially for issues like camping.
That's why he said their social workers are out speaking with those experiencing homelessness every day and offering resources. Chief Brown said they need to look at the underlying root problem.
A Neighborhood Nuisance
Ballpark resident Taylor Anderson brought up the topic of a nuisance ordinance, and asked what tools the city can use to address problems with property owners.
The concern comes from one of the most recent murders, that started with a fight at a property on Kensington Avenue that neighbors told Fox 13 had been the center of issues for months.
Residents said they tried to complain to the city about code and ordinance violations, and repeatedly called police over drug use and suspicious activity.
They were frustrated to see the triple shooting and homicide.
"What is missing that prevents you guys-- from your department-- from addressing the property owners head on? From whatever is causing the same murders that happen on Kensington Street? The same murders that happen on Main in broad daylight? What is missing, Chief?" Anderson asked at Thursday's meeting, to Chief Brown.
"What's missing, is some teeth to effect some sort of accountability for landlords and tenants that allow these types of activities to keep occurring in your neighborhoods," Chief Brown answered.
He explained there is a nuisance law, but it takes a lot to identify precursor crimes that are occurring and tie the crimes to an establishment.
Even then, he said, the crimes are often misdemeanors.
Chief Brown said they need some sort of nuisance abatement that holds landlords/tenants civilly liable. He said they've got to send a message to landlords, that landlords need to be careful who they are renting to.
He said it's been a problem up and down State Street and in the Ballpark community for a number of years.
Weston Clark, Director of Community Outreach at the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office, piped up to say Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the Salt Lake City Council recently asked their attorneys to look at the city nuisance ordinance, and how to "do it better."
State Representative Angela Romero (D-Salt Lake City) also chimed in, to explain that a solution may come from the state legislature in the future.
"We're going to be coordinating with the city to find out what we need to do to propose legislation," Rep. Romero said. Though she added that it would be difficult to do this upcoming session, because there are already over 1,000 bills.
While answers will take time, Amy Hawkins with the Ballpark Community Council said, "these conversations can be the start of solutions."
The leaders involved in Thursday night's meeting indicated there is one immediate step already taking place: The 2021 Crime Plan.
Unveiled just this week, the Crime Plan includes a multi-agency effort by Salt Lake City, Department of Public Safety, US Marshals, and Utah US Attorney to crack down on violent crime.
"Once that plan is put in place and the enforcement starts happening, you will see a difference in your neighborhoods," Sheriff Rivera said.
Chief Brown said that they continue to do operations in the area, including undercover operations.
He also talked about creating teams within the police department made up of a captain, lieutenant, sergeant, and officer. Each team, he indicated, will be assigned to a specific Salt Lake City council district, and will meet weekly.
"I wish it was one big red, easy button I could push. I would have pushed it many, many years ago," Chief Brown said. "But we'll continue through this program and the others that I've talked about to help this community, and all the communities here in Salt Lake City."