There might not be any worse time in our nation’s history to be a cop. Talk to any police officer who’s worked through this past year and they’ll share with you the litany of challenges they face day in and day out. A global pandemic, civil unrest, calls for deep budget cuts, and even local newspaper artists here in Salt Lake depicting them as members of the Ku Klux Klan all contribute to the struggle of an already tough job. However, one challenge clearly rises above them all.
Since April of 2020, many departments, including Salt Lake City, have seen a decline in proactive policing. Historically, until the mid-1980s, most criminology experts assumed that policing was a matter of responding to crime, and police officers had no impact on the number of crimes committed in a given city. Simply put, the experts thought that “criminals would be criminals” and cops should just show up to “clean up the mess.” Because of this philosophy, patrol officers mostly waited around for 911 calls to come in, then responded in a reactive fashion. In the late 80s and early 90s, innovative law enforcement leaders in New York City such as Bill Bratton, Chuck Wexler, and John Timoney, decided to challenge the notion that police officers have no impact on crime.
Instead of viewing law enforcement as a reactionary force, these leaders proposed more proactive measures. Putting more cops on the street in a visible presence, using a cutting-edge program called “COMPSTAT” to use data-driven metrics about where to deploy officers, and targeting dangerous violent criminals with warrants out for their arrest all contributed to crime, and specifically murder, plummeting in New York City. Soon these innovations caught popularity with departments around the nation and other cities saw similar successes. When asked about this new strategy and the results his city saw, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton summed it up by saying: “Cops Count, Police Matter.”
Another important facet of American policing is a philosophy called “Community-Oriented Policing”. This initiative, also known as just community policing, is the simple but powerful notion that residents of a city should have 4-5 positive interactions with a police officer before they have one negative interaction. By going to schools, community council meetings, and being connected with the neighborhoods they serve, police officers are more in tune with the diverse challenges their community faces, and they build the trust necessary to be effective in solving problems.
Despite major progress in the past few years,, Salt Lake City has seen a significant increase in homicide, theft, robbery, and carjacking since April of 2020. The challenges facing the Salt Lake Police Department are well-documented and the most recent reports show our city desperately needs more officers. Where does this crime wave hit our city the hardest? Our most diverse communities and neighborhoods are disproportionately victimized by higher rates of murder and violent crime.
The crisis facing us in Salt Lake City is not an outlier from what the rest of the nation has seen. Paul Cassel, a former federal judge and current professor at the University of Utah College of Law, has done extensive research on this very topic. Declines in proactive policing strategies since early 2020 have caused murder rates to skyrocket in Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, New York, and even smaller cities such as Louisville and Milwaukee.
In a recent article for KUER, Shima Baughman, an associate dean and criminal justice researcher at the University of Utah law school, suggested that more officers on the street do not reduce crime. She cited the fact that many officers actually spend most of their time being reactive and not proactive. Ironically, that is exactly the reason we need more officers. When our police department has the resources and personnel necessary to effectively do their job, they can recommit to proactive policing, and fully invest in community policing — data-driven strategies we know are extremely effective.
In my role as director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, I constantly hear the pleas of our citizens for help as they see criminals emboldened by our weakened law enforcement presence. FOX 13’s investigative team exposed that the Salt Lake Police Department’s staffing struggles have led to dangerously slowed response times, including a 28-minute response time for “rape in progress.” With this in mind, calls to defund the police seem truly incomprehensible. Our police department needs our support now more than ever.
Since the summer of 2020, we have all been lectured time and time again about the cost of police funding and budgets, but I think it’s time we talk about the cost of crime. The fact of the matter is, police officers do impact crime. We just have to give them the resources necessary to do their job. It’s time for a return to proactive policing — creating foot patrols, recommitting to community policing, seeking out the “apex criminals” preying on our vulnerable communities, and deploying resources based on where we need to, not just where we can.
Our message to the citizens of Salt Lake City is simple: Cops Count, Police Matter.
Tyler Clancy is the Executive Director of the Pioneer Park Coalition