In the push to eliminate free-fare bus zones in downtown Salt Lake City, the Utah Transit Authority has argued repeatedly that those free rides lead to increased crime and allow unsavory people to hop aboard just to get out of the cold or to beg from other passengers.
But the agency won't or can't produce crime statistics to back up those claims. It won't even say if UTA which operates its own 58-officer police force is capable of such analysis.
"UTA will not be commenting on any questions related to verified crime data," UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said.
Among topics the publicly funded agency has decided are off the table for discussion:
• What UTA data show about crime anywhere in its jurisdiction
• Whether it analyzes data in deciding how and where to deploy its officers
• Whether it can easily access the data that is stored by an outside contractor.
Carpenter says UTA won't comment until the State Records Committee resolves an ongoing four-month tussle with The Salt Lake Tribune over the release of its crime data. UTA denied initial requests for the information, along with appeals to its general manager and board. Attempts at mediation by the state records ombudsman also were unsuccessful, so The Tribune appealed to the Records Committee.
The newspaper filed an open-records request in May as part of its ongoing effort to map crime in Salt Lake County. It asked for electronic data of crimes handled by UTA Police in 2011, including the date, offense and coordinates or location to allow mapping. UTA provided a document showing it had handled almost 6,000 criminal matters in 2011, but it would not provide dates or locations of the offenses.
The Tribune filed similar requests with 15 other police agencies that operate in Salt Lake County. Fourteen of them quickly provided that data including 12 that handed it over for free. The other two charged a total of $77.50.
UTA and the Utah Highway Patrol were the only two agencies that said they could not comply. The Highway Patrol said it did not maintain its 2011 crime records in an easily accessible electronic format but said it had fixed that for 2012 and such records will be made available in the future.
UTA is currently proposing to charge about $6,700 as a starting point for its data, for copies of about 7,100 police tickets or reports stored electronically not for an electronic spreadsheet or database that most agencies maintain for easier analysis. It would charge more at an estimated $28 an hour for labor to black-out any sensitive information. UTA says it cannot estimate a total cost.
The agency has argued that it doesn't keep records in the format requested, and it is not required to produce them. But it has said that a contractor, FATPOT, keeps UTA crime data in an electronic database. FATPOT told The Tribune that its clients have access to statistical information in electronic format, and it would be happy to work with the UTA in an effort to fill the paper's request if the UTA asked for assistance.
The Tribune pointed that out in appeals, but UTA denied those and said it would need to make copies of reports and citations instead.
UTA Police Chief Ross Larsen declined an interview request to discuss what sort of analysis the agency can or does perform using the data including whether it shows that free bus fare zones lead to more crime.
"Given this is in appeal right now and has been heavily arbitrated, at the point we will not comment on how we use crime data as part of our policing efforts," Carpenter said.
While declining to comment about free-fare zone crime data, Carpenter did talk anecdotally about crime related to free-fare zones and difficulty in quantifying it.
"We do a reverse fare collection. The bus operator does not collect fares in the downtown free-fare zone area and is required to collect fares" when passengers exit outside the zone. He said when some refuse to pay at the end of their trip, it "places the operator in an awkward position … which could at times even become violent."
When asked if UTA could talk generally about how often people leave without paying or cause violence, panhandling or strong-arming, he again said, "At this point, again, I'm not going to comment on how that data is used or analyzed because of the fact that we are under appeal."
He repeated the response several times to questions about whether UTA analyzes crimes in deploying its officers, how the agency stores and accesses crime data, and whether it has any plans to upgrade its data storage.
Carpenter did say once the records dispute is resolved he looks forward to discussing UTA law enforcement.
"I think we have a great story to tell about our policing methods," Carpenter said.
Police responses for crime data
The Salt Lake Tribune asked 16 police agencies for crime data bases to allow mapping crime. Here is how they replied:
Denied request • Utah Transit Authority (also said providing copies of written reports will cost more than $6,700) .
Provided data at no cost • Bluffdale/Saratoga Springs, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Murray, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City Airport, Sandy, South Jordan, South Salt Lake, Taylorsville, Unified, West Valley City .
Provided it for $5 • University of Utah.
Provided it for $72.50 • West Jordan.
Said format made it difficult now but it would be provided in the future • Utah Highway Patrol.