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Midvale Journal

UPD in the crosshairs as HB374 looks likely to pass

Mar 08, 2023 11:49AM ● By Zak Sonntag

A bill at the legislature would dissolve UPD in 2025. (City Journals)

The days appear numbered for Unified Police Department—the second largest police force in the state, which serves nine cities and townships in addition to countywide services—with the likely passage of HB374, a bill that would dissolve UPD on Jan. 1, 2025.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, says he wants to eliminate the agency over concerns with “double taxation” and “conflict of interest” which stem from the County Sheriff’s dual functions as sheriff and CEO of Unified Police, according to Teuscher.

“You have situations where what might be best for the county may not be the best thing for UPD, and what might be the best thing for UPD may not be the best thing for the county. And with that conflict of interest,” said Teuscher during a Feb. 15 House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee hearing.

Created in 2009, UPD is an interlocal police agency whose shared services model allows participating municipalities to access specialized public safety services—like K9 units, Forensics or SWAT—while keeping in place precinct-level autonomy over local enforcement.

The model has won deep devotion from its participating parties.

“Our whole city recognizes the benefits of sharing services within the municipalities. It provides a far more robust police department for our residents than we would have if we started our own police department,” said Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, UPD board member, addressing the committee.

“My concern with this bill—and I stand in opposition to it—is it throws the baby out with the bathwater. There is no reason to dissolve the entity in the first place,” he said.

Although as Teuscher understands it, the entity was created with the intention of growing to serve as a “metro-style” countywide police force; instead, the entity has seen its market share shrink in recent years with the departure of some cities which he says results in conflicts and unintended misappropriation.

Perception is reality

Opponents of the bill, however, fiercely reject accusations of double taxation, and say Teuscher is pedaling exaggerated claims he’s failed to provide substantive evidence for.

“The fact that they’re going to destroy the entire police department, the second largest in the state, out of data that doesn't exist, that's where it becomes frustrating for me,” said UPD Chair, Midvale Mayor Marcus Stevenson, in an interview with the City Journals.

“There is a perception that UPD is subsidized, and while there is no data to back that up, perception is reality,” he said. “We have a legislature that is going to make a pretty big decision with inaccurate information.”

The only data produced includes a county audit, which lawmakers agreed showed no evidence double taxation.

Although an internal work group assigned by the Sheriff’s Office did bring to light areas for administrative improvement. 

The committee determined that a jurisdiction-specific Metro Mental Health initiative—which dispatches social workers alongside officers responding to calls implicating mental illness—received financing from a general fund meant for countywide services, according to Silvestrini, who drafted a report on the findings not yet made public.

Silvestrini said stakeholders nonetheless agreed the organization functioned fairly, legally, and that double taxation and conflicts of interest are not born out.

“With the exception of the mental health unit, we had consensus that all the things that the county was paying for out of the general fund were in fact countywide services,” he said, in an interview with the City Journals.

Killing our officers mentally

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera—at the heart of the purported conflict—adamantly defends the integrity of UPD and her functions as its CEO.

“This issue has continually come up the entire time I've been sheriff…since 2017. We have done numerous things to try to convince people that the UPD is a great organization; we're very transparent, and there is no conflict. I believe it's a perceived conflict,” Rivera said during the Feb. 15 hearing. 

Rivera lamented the sponsor’s unnuanced solution and said the process has deeply decimated officer morale.

“This disruption over and over is killing our officers mentally. It is taking a huge impact on them and their families, and we need to do something to help them,” she said.

Lt. Nate Lord, who spoke on behalf of UPD officers during the committee hearing, confirmed the toll on rank and file servicemembers.

“The declination of our morale is rampant and it’s going fast. We’re not comfortable with constant turmoil and turbulence, because every year someone comes to question our police department,” said Lord, who added that the department was still recovering from “one of the roughest years we’ve had in decades,” referring to tumultuous period of nationwide protests that followed in the 2020 wake of high profile racially motivated killings by police.

A lot of this has to do with politics

UPD board member and Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle expressed anger with the legislative process, which he said tilted favor to the bill sponsor and disregarded people in uniform. 

“There’s a major amount of frustration because of the legislative process. We had a lot of supporters to speak against the bill, and right out of the gate they said, ‘Five of you can speak. For one minute each,’” said Dahle, during a city meeting the following day. “Then the bill sponsor sat up there for 15 minutes and made claims that we weren’t able to refute.” 

“The thing that angers me the most is that what people forget with politics and policy, and a lot of this has to do with politics, they forget that there are human beings on the back end of this—and they have been really damaged,” Dahle said.

“This could have been fixed in a way that was controlled and less damaging to the individual officers serving our communities. It was easily fixable at the county sheriff level. So to have this legislation come in and basically take a hammer to it is awful.”

Dahle also worries that the coming alternatives will fail to replicate the efficiency of the current UPD model. “I still think it’s the best model and the best way to police a community,” he said. 

Rivera, too, chided lawmakers for underappreciating the financial burden the bill imposes on local governments. 

“There are legal implications and their financial implications that have not been looked at. I do think it is going to be very costly for our communities,” she said.

UPD 2.0 

Opponents suffered a blow with the unexpected announcement by Sheriff Rosie Rivera that she would no longer oppose the bill, explaining during a February press conference that the writing was on the wall.

“If we were to kill the bill, the sponsor has said he will continue to bring it back. This problem will never go away,” she said, expressing fatigue that the Sheriff’s Office had been backed into a corner by political forces. “I chose not to oppose this bill because I have a responsibility to create long-term stability for public safety.”

The announcement caught UPD board members unaware. 

“Being that the sheriff is our CEO and the board gave direct policy direction against this, I was shocked and disappointed by her position,” UPD Chair Stevenson said, even while admitting he understands the politics that forced Rivera’s hand and that the board believes Rivera has the officers interest at heart.

Stevenson said he intends to continue his fight against the bill, but other members have already begun pivoting attention to crafting a new interlocal police force, which Mayor Silvestrini is calling “Unified 2.0.” 

“In terms of real politics that bill is probably going to pass no matter what we decided to do. So, I would rather focus my efforts on UPD 2.0, and providing assurance to our officers they're going to have stability in their employment, and providing assurance to the residents of my city that we're going to have a robust police department,” Silvestrini said.