Once again, while the rest of the nation celebrates a drop in crime, Salt Lake residents are left with mixed emotions. Overall, crime fell by 3 percent in 1997, according to the FBI's annual report. But incidents of murder, robbery and auto theft - crimes that ought to cause great concern - all increased in Utah's capital city.
Sound familiar? It should. That pattern has repeated itself in each of the past several years, although the trend, thankfully, is lessening. Two years ago, Salt Lake City's overall crime rate rose by a whopping 16 percent despite a drop nationwide. In this latest report the city had only one more murder than the previous year, and robbery and auto theft increased by 5 percent and 4 percent respectively. Nationally, murder fell by more than 10 percent in the larger cities.We agree with city officials that the report, overall, is heartening, but it hardly qualifies as good news. The fact is the city - and the rest of Salt Lake County - isn't likely to get a true handle on crime until the new county jail is completed in May 1999. Once overcrowding no longer is a problem, and once the county comes out from under a court order requiring it to free prisoners if their numbers top a certain level, police will have a better chance of controlling the problem.
Until then, the revolving door will continue. Studies have consistently shown that crime in any community can be blamed on the mischief caused by about 7 percent of the population. If that 7 percent is locked away or otherwise restricted, crime disappears. But if many of those criminals are arrested and then immediately freed by an overwrought jailer, they become emboldened.
Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini blames much of the increase on the illegal drug trade, and much of that can be blamed directly on the INS, which at one point last year was so understaffed its employees stopped answering the phone.
The federal government has made strides since then. A half-dozen or so new officers were sent to Utah to help fight the direct pipeline to Mexico's illegal drug network. The city, meanwhile, may hire 10 new officers of its own. The question is whether this will be enough.
Salt Lake City is unique. It is home to only 170,000 people, yet it is the center of a growing metro area of about 1.3 million people. It naturally attracts more than its share of crime. Still, city residents shouldn't be satisfied with the figures in this report.
Don't panic. The city is hardly in the midst of a crime crisis. Police Chief Ruben Ortega obviously has made strides in curbing the increases that had everyone worried a few years ago.
But that isn't enough. The City Council, as it works out the details of the next city budget, needs to make a strong statement by investing heavily in law enforcement.