KSL Investigates: Sheriff addresses areas of concern in Salt Lake County
SALT LAKE COUNTY – For 25 years, Rosie Rivera wanted to be the top cop.
“I always knew I’d be a police chief somewhere. That was my goal,” said Rivera.
She met that goal last August after Salt Lake County Democrats elected her to fill out the term of former Sheriff Jim Winder.
“I absolutely love it, it’s challenging, but gosh it’s a great job,” said Rivera.
She took office at a time of growing gang violence. That’s one of several issues in the county the KSL Investigators have reported on in the last year.
Other areas of concern: how jail restrictions have impacted crime in the county, and the number of officers wearing expired body armor.
Debbie Dujanovic sat down with the new sheriff to see what’s changed in the seven months since she took office.
Sheriff Rivera’s first six weeks on the job were marred by gang violence.
Rivera told KSL that guns, gangs and kids are a real problem in the valley. Gang problems have risen to levels not seen since the 1990s Rivera said, but this time with a twist: most of the gang members are now juveniles.
Last month, the KSL Investigators reported on a troubling fact: police have identified 50 gangs in Salt Lake County and estimate there are about 1,300 juvenile gang members.
The metro gang unit is working with federal agents to target guns and gangs. Rivera said while detectives build cases, the department also needs to focus on schools to prevent kids from joining in the first place.
“It’s going to take some time,” Rivera said. “But I really think we need to increase that prevention piece.”
Getting a handle on the number of juveniles joining gangs and committing crimes is one of her priorities, and so is the safety of her officers.
Starting in 2016, the KSL Investigators uncovered a serious safety issue for the deputies and Unified Police Department officers. We found 46 percent of the bullet resistant vests worn by officers had expired.
Retired FBI special agent Juan Becerra said at the time, “Why would you want to wear something like this that puts your life in danger, unnecessarily?”
For years, the department didn’t track the officers’ vests or how the officers spent the tax dollars given to them for uniforms and equipment.
Dujanovic said, “There’s no accountability for how the money is spent, just knowing the system the way I knew it, officers could be spending the money on a new sofa.”
Rivera said, “Yes, and we weren’t asking them (what) they were spending the money on so when I became the sheriff, probably the first two weeks they had already started looking at a purchasing card program. The go ahead had never been given.”
She gave the green light on the new program. Officers now have special credit cards that can only be used for uniforms and equipment, like vests. Rivera also set an October deadline for officers with expired vests to swap them out.
“Now we are keeping track and when it is expired, if you’re out of policy, everybody knows you have to be in that policy or you’ll be disciplined,” said Rivera.
Another KSL Investigation in 2017 found former Sheriff Jim Winder restricted who could be booked into jail.
Those restrictions essentially barred the jail from booking suspects unless they had committed a violent crime, such as murder, rape or kidnapping. On the streets, police could only issue tickets and release offenders accused of assaulting officers, or breaking into cars. Officers told us those jail restrictions were putting the public at risk.
Salt Lake City police Sgt. Scott Mourtgos said at the time, “It has been ridiculous. It has created real problems for us, we need to be able to book people into jail again for the crimes they commit.”
After our report, the former sheriff began easing the restrictions.
So what’s happened on Rivera’s watch?
Under her command, the booking restrictions are totally lifted. But Rivera said the jail is still at capacity and because of that, jail staff identify inmates who can be released early to help make room. For example, inmates who committed non-violent crimes, such as a misdemeanor charge of theft.
The jail follows a protocol to identify dangerous offenders to keep locked up.
Rivera said, “If we were to get into a situation where it wasn’t manageable than those restrictions would go back but I don’t see that occurring in the near future at all.”
She said unless the jail is expanded, it will not be able to keep up with the county’s growing number of people living here.
After seven months in the top spot and 25 years in law enforcement, the new sheriff said she’ll keep making her mark in Salt Lake County. And she plans to run for re-election.
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