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South Valley Journal

To leave or not to leave? Riverton contemplates breaking away from Unified Police Department

Aug 23, 2018 06:40PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Around 70 percent of Salt Lake County provides its own law enforcement, and Riverton officials are considering joining the crowd. (Mariden Williams/City Journals)

By Mariden Williams | [email protected] 

In July 2018, Riverton city officials declared their intent to leave the Unified Police Department at the end of 12 months if significant differences between the city and UPD officials could not be resolved. Instead of UPD, which provides law enforcement to 30 percent of Salt Lake County, Riverton officials would create a local Riverton Police Department. A town hall meeting on the matter was held on Aug. 14 at Riverton High School. 

The total projected 2019 budget for the proposed Riverton Police Department would be $5,167,656. Of that, $500,000 would be one-time startup costs, and it would also include 10 more permanent officers than Riverton is currently allotted by UPD. Riverton’s 2019 budget with UPD as it currently stands would be $5,288,290. 

"The reason it can be done that low is because we're invested,” said Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs at the town hall meeting. “After having been with Unified Police Department for five years, those precinct assets actually belong to you, the residents and to the precinct itself. The building belongs to us. It says in the interlocal agreement, if you're a member for five years, you're an investor, and you own all of your assets and a share of Unified assets, which are substantial." 

Riverton has been a member of UPD since 2010, so all of the UPD assets purchased with Riverton tax dollars in that time belong to Riverton. Because of this, Riverton leaders should be able to take their toys—squad cars, police office building, etc.,— and go home to create their own police department for relatively little money. But many at the town hall meeting expressed doubts that this is the way things would actually play out. One resident described the proposed Riverton Police Department's budget as "a pipe dream." 

"I've seen Draper do this,” said Ray Lopez, a retired UPD officer. “I've seen it three times, and every time, it was over budget. I saw Taylorsville do it, and it's over budget. I saw Cottonwood Heights do it, and it's over budget. And you show us your numbers; it's going to go over budget."  

Many cities that leave UPD end up coming back in the end for precisely that reason. 

"I was part of the Taylorsville police department, and we had a lot of struggles, although we had a lot of great people trying to make it work,” said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera. “The budget was just too much, and we came back to UPD." 

"I think you will get more bang for your buck if you have your own police department," said Detective Dan Roberts, a Riverton resident who has served in the West Jordan police department for 20 years and spent three years of that term handling the department's finances. "But I think you're way underbidding, way undershooting what you think you're going to be paying for your officers. We at West Jordan spend about $150,000 per year per officer. I don't see anything in your budget for a fleet."

"Have you guys thought about your forensics?” said Riverton resident and UPD Officer Kelly Shakdo. “Where are you going to hold your evidence? How much is it going to cost you for a record system? Because I know we paid a pretty penny for ours." 

It's not just the money that has residents worried, either. It's the quality of the service provided. 

"You all agreed that you're happy with UPD services on the officer level,” said Riverton resident Officer Nelson Howards. “The reason you have such good officers is because you're a part of UPD. You say you're going to get 10 more officers when you leave UPD, but the reality of it is you're going to lose over 250."

UPD recruits a lot of its officers from smaller city police departments such as the one that Riverton officials are considering forming. 

"The reason those officers jump is not money; it is opportunity,” said Mark Olsen, a Riverton resident and UPD officer. “I fear that with Riverton forming our own department, those opportunities for those officers being diminished, that the quality of officers that will stay here will be reduced. I think you're gonna see officers stay for three to five years, then move to a larger department." 

Another thing that has Riverton officials concerned is the high cost of UPD "pooled services,” such as K-9 units, narcotics divisions, SWAT teams and child abduction response teams that are very nice to have when you need them but hard to justify paying for fulltime for a small city with a relatively low crime rate. Since it serves many cities, UPD can justify paying for such things, and cities that contract with UPD have access to these pooled services on an as-needed basis.

"You are getting access to 10 detectives in the violent crimes unit that handle homicides constantly,” said Howards, whose brother was recently murdered. “I don't know how many people can relate with me, but that's a huge deal to me as a citizen.” 

"Everybody says, well, we don't use all the services that Unified has; we don't have the crime rate; we don't have the problems,” said Officer Jason Allbrid. “Well, I don't crash my car every day, but I still have insurance. I like the insurance that UPD has offered.” 

Various UPD officers also expressed concern about navigating the bureaucratic difficulties caused by lots of small, separate police jurisdictions, such as the proposed Riverton Police Department. While police departments for one city are generally able and willing to aid other cities, it apparently causes a bit of a headache in terms of communication and paperwork. 

"You guys are tying our hands at the borders,” Howards said. “The red tape is killing us. What happens in Taylorsville is directly affecting the citizens in Riverton, whether you like it or not. The drug dealers in Millcreek are selling dope to our kids in Riverton. The car thief in Magna is stealing cars in Riverton. So, you've got to look beyond your borders." 

"I'm a little confused why Utah and Salt Lake County continues to make these small kingdoms," said Shakdo. "If you talked to any officers, they would be totally up for a metro, better communication. And that is what UPD brings: better communication, better organization." 

That said, Riverton has long complained about the UPD administrative board’s opaqueness and unwillingness to answer questions, as well as its mysterious ways of allocating tax dollars and voting power. 

The real impetus to leave came the evening of July 18, when city officials finally received information about an important modification to UPD's asset allocation formula that would be made at a UPD Board of Directors meeting the very next day. This decision would reduce Riverton’s assets in the organization to a “near zero amount,” according to Staggs, and yet Riverton officials weren’t warned until it was too late to do anything about it but threaten to leave. 

"We are actively negotiating with UPD administration,” said Staggs. “We have some items that we would like to have covered. However, if the concerns cannot be addressed or resolved in a satisfactory way, the city is prepared… to leave.” 

"I think that what you are doing as public servants is important,” said Rivera. “You have to look at the tax dollars and where they're going. But you also have to look at public safety. That is the number one thing. As a resident of Riverton, I want you to know that we are willing to sit down at the table with you and work something out."