A friend of mine was walking across the street to his car the other day after enjoying lunch at the Rio Grande Cafe when a police officer handed him a $50 ticket for jaywalking.
That seemed strange to him. Jaywalking is one of those violations no one expects to be enforced, like loitering, spitting on the sidewalk or palming the ball in the NBA.My friend wasn't alone. According to Michelle Fredrickson, manager of the cafe, about 20 lunchtime customers have received similar citations in recent weeks. All of them were snared as part of the Salt Lake City Police Department's efforts to run drug dealers, vagrants and troublemakers away from the soup kitchens and shelters down the street.
Police Chief Ruben Ortega said this is part of a zero-tolerance program, initiated in early spring to clean up Pioneer Park. Under this program, police officers are issuing citations for any crime they can think of, no matter how obscure.
But when Ortega first started the program, the ACLU complained that cops were picking on vagrants and shady-looking characters only. They pointed down the street at the crowd of lunchtime scofflaws who were thumbing their noses at jaywalking laws in front of the Rio Grande.
"They were right," Ortega said. "We have to be fair. We can't just issue citations to one type of people."
Of course, the difference between my friend and the vagrants who get jaywalking tickets is that my friend has a real address and real identification. He has to pay. The vagrant doesn't.
Ortega acknowledges this but says the vagrants who don't pay end up with arrest warrants. "The system eventually catches up to them," he said. "My officers know them. They know who they are and they know when they're giving them false ID."
The other difference is that people in the rest of the valley, no matter how they dress, can jaywalk with impunity in front of police. As long as they don't get hit by a car, they never get as much as a warning.
Ortega says this type of discrimination is OK.
"We target areas, not people," he said. "Tomorrow if we had a series of pedestrian accidents on Main Street, you bet we'd be there."
None of this is particularly comforting to Fredrickson, who worries about losing customers at the popular restaurant. She doesn't want to complain too loudly because business would really drop off if the cops left and the underworld took over.
"Frankly, I'd rather see them getting jaywalking tickets than see them getting mugged."
But customers haven't been particularly understanding. "A guy came back in and said he was holding us responsible," she said. "I don't think that's right."
She has erected a sign warning people not to jaywalk, but no one seems to pay attention. Soon she hopes to make parking off limits across the street.
And the Rio Grande isn't alone. Fredrickson said a tour bus recently pulled up in front of the Utah Historical Society's museum next door. Two elderly ladies were among the people who got off. They saw two officers across the street and felt like thanking them for making the area feel safe. They walked across the street and, you guessed it. . . .
Ortega is in a difficult situation here. He's sympathetic to the concerns but also is serious about scaring away the bad folks. He said he had ordered his officers to back off after the initial efforts to clean the area. But a few weeks ago people started complaining about criminal activity returning.
The chief said he isn't just using jaywalking as a random tool. Several months ago, when drug dealers had their way around Pioneer Park, they often caused traffic jams as they ran across streets and as wealthy customers double-parked or stopped their luxury cars in the middle of the street to make a purchase.
Those days are gone, but the bad folks keep trying to come back. Ortega attributes that to the clustering of shelters and other service providers for the poor.
"The strategy is that if we can move them (the criminals) out, we're going to spread them out. Then we're going to follow them."
I won't argue with the chief if the zero-tolerance program is working. But I know this much: As long as justice is going to be blind around the Rio Grande, you'd better keep your eyes wide open.