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Salt Lake City Council Lifts Police Department’s Hiring Freeze

Salt Lake City riot police
Brian Albers/ KUER
The Salt Lake City Council voted Tuesday night to lift a hiring freeze on the city’s police department.

Despite renewed calls to “defund the police,” the Salt Lake City Council voted Tuesday night to lift a hiring freeze on the city’s police department. The freeze was part of the council’s response to widespread calls for police reform following last summer’s protests against racial injustice, as well as budget uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

In a report to the council last week, police officials said they’re facing “huge gaps” in staffing, as 64 officers left last year. The majority resigned, citing burnout and a loss of respect as some of the reasons they left, according to records obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune.

The department is also receiving more calls for service — increasing each year from just over 90,000 in 2016 to nearly 114,000 in 2020. That, combined with staffing shortages, creates backlogs in service calls and longer response times, the report said.

“I've experienced it myself,” said Sach Combs, a resident of the ballpark neighborhood, during a public comment period. “I've been threatened violently. And it's frightening when nothing happens in those scenarios.”

Lifting the freeze is a temporary measure, only allowing for the department to fill 30 of its 53 current vacancies council members noted. It also doesn’t require additional funding, as the new officers can be paid for by funds the department saved when others left.

Still, most residents who weighed in Tuesday were against the move, echoing many of the calls for police reform made last summer.

“We're tired of endlessly demanding that the government stop relying on and funding the police to address community safety,” said Salt Lake resident Liz DeFriez. “Instead, we are demanding to start funding resources that are actually wanted and needed, resources which will address the root causes of crime and harm in our communities.”

She pointed to things like housing, food and mental health care, which she said the police aren’t equipped or trained to address.

While they voted against many of the speakers’ wishes, council members said they agreed with many of the concerns raised. But they couldn’t ignore the city’s mandate to provide a police force.

“This isn't a situation where it's all one [side] or the other,” said councilmember Chris Wharton. “We have to address the concerns that are happening on both sides and address the symptoms of a system that we all acknowledge is not the perfect system and not the system we have going forward.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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