Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Utah’s Legislature is looking at dissolving the Salt Lake Unified Police Department

A sign outside of the Unified Police Department Millcreek Precinct, Feb. 27, 2023.
Martha Harris
A sign outside of the Unified Police Department Millcreek Precinct, Feb. 27, 2023.

Rosie Rivera is both the Sheriff of Salt Lake County and CEO of the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake. But if HB374 by Rep. Jordan Teuscher passes, she would no longer oversee UPD and the department itself would be dissolved.

UPD started after the Legislature passed a bill in 2009 allowing Salt Lake County to create such a department. The idea was communities would share law enforcement services to save money. Under the UPD model, the department is overseen by a board of elected officials from the communities they serve. The Salt Lake County Sheriff is CEO of the department and performs their countywide law enforcement duties through UPD.

The thought when UPD was created, Teuscher said, was that it would grow and become a metro-wide police force throughout the county, but that hasn’t happened.

UPD serves Copperton, Brighton, Holladay, Kearns, Midvale, Magna, Millcreek, White City, Brighton and Emigration Canyon. In the last several years, Herriman, Riverton and Taylorsville all left to form their own police departments and the Midvale City Council discussed leaving.

Teuscher started looking at UPD when constituents in cities not served by UPD, like South Jordan and West Jordan, were worried about double taxation. They were concerned that county funds were being given to UPD to provide services that didn’t benefit them.

“Things that were already being paid for at the local level with local taxes,” he said. “And even though they didn’t get double services, they were double taxed.”

Teuscher also had concerns about the transparency of how countywide funds were being used to make sure there was no double taxation. But he believed one of the more glaring issues was having the county sheriff serve as the CEO. He thinks that creates a conflict of interest because what might be best for UPD may not be right for the county.

The 2009 law only allows Salt Lake County, because of its large population, to create a department like UPD. HB374 would remove that language and make it so Salt Lake County is treated the same as every other county.

Rivera does not think there is a double taxation issue. She said the sheriff’s office provides some services, like the search and rescue team, that parts of the county rarely need, but those services are still there.

“We're not going to be in your area if you don't have a reason for us to be there.”

She also disagrees with Teuscher that her position creates a conflict of interest.

“We do everything with integrity. When I first became the sheriff, we took over the budget and the budget was not transparent,” Rivera said. “We made sure that it was very transparent.”

But even though Rivera disagrees with some of Teuscher’s claims, she’s supporting the bill. Rivera believes UPD is a great agency and the model of sharing services is effective but said this issue has been around since she took office in 2017 and it’s not going away.

“I didn't create the Unified Police Department, but I tried to make it work,” Rivera said. “If I am tied up with these issues year after year after year, I can't perform my duty that I need to perform. And that is to provide the best public safety for our residents here in this county.”

During a Feb. 14 press conference, Rivera said she felt she was “basically backed into a corner by political forces and there is just no easy way out.”

In the long run, Rivera thinks Teuscher’s bill is the best option for public safety and for UPD employees. Also, if UPD is dissolved, Rivera will be treated like every other sheriff in the state because she’ll no longer be governed by a board of directors.

“The people did elect me to provide public safety for the county as the county sheriff. But under the Unified Police Department, that's really difficult when you're governed by a board.

Another reason Rivera supports the bill is that it gives the sheriff’s office and UPD until July 1, 2025, to figure out a plan for how to move forward. In the original version of the bill, they only had until the end of 2023.

Communities that are currently a part of UPD could either contract with the county sheriff for services, form a new police force of their own or contract with another city. These communities could also band together with other towns, as they did with UPD. But the difference would be that the Salt Lake County Sheriff would not be at the helm of the department.

Rivera said if the bill passes, the sheriff’s office would take back the statutory countywide duties of the sheriff and members of UPD would need to figure out what they want to do moving forward. Rivera also said costs would go up for these municipalities.

Teuscher hopes this will give these communities an opportunity to figure out a policing model that works best for their specific needs.

Since there will be a lot of unknowns, Rivera worries about officer morale.

“We’ve already lost two people just last week because of the uncertainty,” she said.

Teuscher amended the bill so that the merit status of UPD officers would be protected.

“The bottom line is we have a shortage of officers in the state, in the county. We need them. We appreciate what they do. We want to make sure that they are well compensated, that they're protected, that they're respected,” he said.

The bill passed in the House and in the Senate, Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 24. It still needs approval in the full Senate before the end of the legislative session on March 3.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.