SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Police Department wants to hire 27 more officers as part of Operation Rio Grande. But some City Council members worry the city might need even more to properly patrol surrounding neighborhoods.
"Twenty-seven new officers is a pretty big number, but frankly I don't think it's nearly enough," Councilman Charlie Luke said during Tuesday's council meeting.
The council reviewed a $5.2 million budget adjustment to the current fiscal year to hire the 27 additional officers as well as five other social service employees as part of the city's contribution to Operation Rio Grande, the two-year effort to gain control of the area around the downtown homeless shelter.
The police department currently has 437 city-funded police positions, Police Chief Mike Brown said, with an additional 16 funded by grants. But because of turnover and months needed to hire and train new officers, the department is allowed to have 20 positions over its authorized amount.
When those 20 positions are filled — after a class of officers graduates in January and is trained — Brown said the additional 27 officers would bring his department to about 500.
"I think that's right where we need to be," he told the council.
The 27 additional positions is what Brown and Utah Department of Public Safety officials determined would be needed for Operation Rio Grande, said David Litvack, Mayor Jackie Biskupski's deputy chief of staff.
"That makes sense, but I wish it didn't," Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall told Litvack.
Mendenhall said that while she supports Operation Rio Grande, it's become "the thorn in the community's side" in neighborhoods like Ballpark and Liberty Wells.
Since the operation's August launch, residents from those neighborhoods have complained of a perceived uptick in burglaries and other crimes as criminals and those sleeping on the streets have left the heavily patrolled Rio Grande area for other areas.
State and city leaders have urged residents to call and report crime so they can follow criminals as they leave the Rio Grande neighborhood, but some residents have complained that the response hasn't been enough.
Luke is supportive of the operation but said "it's not addressing how that is impacting your neighborhoods, my neighborhood."
"Every neighborhood across the city has seen some level of spike in activity related to this," he said. "Operation Rio Grande is something that had to be done, but it's not the end-all for everything else."
Mendenhall and Luke also pointed out that Salt Lake City's population nearly doubles during the day because of commuters and visitors.
"Most cities don't have the daytime population increase that we see," Luke said. "So I just want us to be realistic. I want us to know how we're going to deal with that daytime population in a way that doesn't take officers away from the neighborhoods and leave them vulnerable."
Luke said he doesn't necessarily want an officer standing "on every corner," but he does want officers regularly patrolling in and out of neighborhoods, enough to help residents feel safe.
Brown told Luke he "couldn't agree more."
"Every beat in this city needs an officer on day, afternoon and graveyards," Brown said. "Everybody deserves to have a cop in their neighborhood. That's what we're striving for, but we don't have the numbers yet."
Still, however, Brown maintained that 500 positions in his department would be adequate — the trouble is the difficulty and time it takes to hire and train.
Mendenhall said the city should negotiate with state officials like House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, to drill down on how the state can help with the cost of additional officers.
"There is some opportunity and some need for some conversations" with the state, Litvack said, adding that the state has committed $10 million over the next two years toward Operation Rio Grande, and the city and county were both asked to split the rest of the $20 million gap in the operation's $67 million budget, to the tune of about $5.2 million over the next two years.
The budget adjustment discussed Tuesday would fund the city's share, Litvack said.
Luke, however, said he doesn't think it's "realistic" to rely on the state to fund officers in neighborhoods, especially on a long-term basis.
"We're going to have to figure out how to deal with this. It's not going to come from the state. It's not going to be coming from the county. And it's certainly not going to be coming from Operation Rio Grande," he said, adding that the city will need to identify a sustainable new source of revenue.
"I don't want to be surprised when we are working on our budget next year and we are completely below where we need to be to balance our budget."