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Operation Rio Grande underway in embattled downtown neighborhood

SALT LAKE CITY — Tawnee has been homeless and living on the streets for a long time.

"A couple of years," she muttered to the Deseret News in a barely audible and not quite coherent voice.

The 41-year-old woman also has a serious drug addiction.

"A long time," she said when asked how long she has been addicted.

As a Utah Highway Patrol trooper had Tawnee roll up her sleeves Monday, numerous track marks and bruises could be seen covering both arms, some of them appearing to be from recent injections.

"You've got fresh blood. You tell me you used yesterday. I don't really believe that," the trooper told Tawnee, who then admitted she had used drugs that morning.

Tawnee was arrested on 13 outstanding warrants, most for drug-related offenses. Her hands were secured behind her back with a zip tie and she was taken away in a patrol car to be processed into the Salt Lake County Jail, where space had been freed up by moving state prisoners to facilities in Davis, Weber, Cache, Tooele and Uintah counties.

Tawnee was one of many people arrested Monday during the first day of what police and lawmakers are calling Operation Rio Grande, the latest effort to clean up the embattled Salt Lake neighborhood at the center of the state's homeless population and drug trade.

The ambitious three-phase plan is meant to curb crime surrounding the Road Home shelter, help those faced with addiction and homelessness, and provide job training and employment to those striving to improve their lives.

Though lawmakers had announced Operation Rio Grande last month following a lengthy closed-door meeting — a response to escalating violence in the area, including three homicides in the neighborhood in less than two weeks — they revealed no details at the time about their plans to defuse the situation.

Beyond the initial law enforcement push into the area, Operation Rio Grande is expected to last two years, including a 24-hour presence of up to 150 officers for the next week.

'Very targeted'

As an estimated 100 officers from multiple jurisdictions worked their way through the turbulent neighborhood Monday, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox emphasized the large undertaking was "not a crackdown" but a targeted and deliberate effort to identify and arrest criminals frequenting the neighborhood.

"This is very targeted and very surgical," Cox said, speaking from the state Emergency Operations Center at the state Capitol. "There has been a tremendous amount of intelligence that has been gathered over the past few days and weeks and months — and literally years in some cases — to identify the worst of the worst, the criminal element that has infiltrated this area."

Cox, who last month was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert as the "point person" to lead the executive branch and its agencies, insisted that officers participating in the effort had been prepared to police compassionately and keep in mind the constitutional rights of those on the street.

"There is and always will be a tension between justice and mercy," Cox said. "However, let me be clear that there is nothing merciful about allowing evil to prey on the vulnerable. There is nothing merciful about removing all consequences from bad or unlawful behavior. And there is nothing merciful about ignoring and removing expectations from those that have found themselves, through circumstances or choice, in a desperate situation."

But around the Rio Grande area, many people caught with drugs and paraphernalia were observed being arrested. Details about the number and nature of arrests during the initial sweep were not immediately available.

After years of trying to arrest away the city's drug problem, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said he believes Operation Rio Grande is "the missing piece" police have been waiting for.

However, arresting people remains an "irreplaceable tool for us to interrupt bad behavior," Brown said, praising Utah Department of Corrections Director Rollin Cook for helping free up space in the county's jail.

"The front door of the jail can be the first step into assessing mental health programs and substance use disorder health on the road to recovery," Brown said.

But Brown went on to warn, "If you are down here to commit a crime, make no mistake, we will oblige you with a jail bed."

In addition to the arrests Monday, those with makeshift shelters and camps along 500 West said they were told they could no longer sleep there.

"They said, 'You've got five minutes to pack up your stuff,'" said Roy, who was sharing the same space along 500 West as Tawnee.

Before being taken to jail, Tawnee loaded most of her belongings into a wagon and asked Roy to look after her property. Roy spent the morning folding his tarp and collecting his materials into a bag. By noon, many wagons and shopping carts were being packed up by people who had been sleeping in the median and park strips.

Visible presence

As the streets emptied, law enforcement established a very visible presence along 500 West between 100 South and 500 South, and around the Pioneer Park area. Two mobile command units were parked on 500 West as if they intended to be there awhile.

Overhead, a Department of Public Safety helicopter circled the area for much of the morning. Officers from various agencies walked in pairs up and down the street, arresting people found with drugs and outstanding warrants.

In other cases, officers let those camping on the street know what options were available to them and where they could get help. Most of the interactions between police and the people on the street were respectful and low-key.

The Deseret News watched as one officer went to his patrol car to retrieve a banana for a man in a wheelchair to make sure he was eating food with some nutrition.

Less than 50 yards from Tawnee and Roy's camp, Jennifer was sleeping on a mattress. Salt Lake police said she is homeless but not a drug addict, and they gently advised her of the operation but did not tell her she had to leave immediately.

Jennifer told the Deseret News she had been living on the street for three months while on a waiting list for Rapid Rehousing, a program by the Road Home aimed at getting families out of the shelter and into a place of their own.

"I've just been trying to get a bed," she said.

Jennifer says she opts to sleep on the street because she believes it's safer than the shelter.

"I was staying inside, but I didn't like it," she said. But sleeping on the street, Jennifer admits, isn't much better.

"It's gross. It's so dirty," she said.

A police officer cautioned members of the media covering the roundup to not wear their shoes inside their homes until they disinfect them because of how filthy the parkway areas along 500 West are. Several officers found discarded syringes lying in the open gutter as they made their rounds.

Deteriorating conditions have made the Rio Grande area daunting, both for those needing and those offering help, Cox said. Operation Rio Grande, he explained, is meant to make that service possible.

"When I have service providers telling me that their employees are afraid to come to work, and when the soup kitchen can't get willing volunteers to come into the area, and when our homeless friends are telling us that they are scared to stay in the shelter, then something is wrong and we must act," Cox said.

Matthew Melville, director of homelessness services for Catholic Community Services, said the operation Monday left him hopeful that police had been precise and successful as they sought to sift out malicious actors in the area.

"Today for lunch at St. Vincent Depaul (dining kitchen), we served 419 people, which is right on par," Melville told the Deseret News. "If our numbers stay the same, it tells me a lot of people taken off the street weren't engaging with service providers."

Melville said many of the kitchen's dozens of volunteers noticed a tangible difference in the neighborhood. "A lot of them mentioned how much more peaceful and quiet the street was when they drove in," he said. "They know how crazy it is on a typical day. For them to mention that the police presence is much appreciated and that the streets are quiet is a really good thing for us. We want for our volunteers to feel safe."

As he walked the area surrounding the Road Home Monday, Matt Minkevitch, its executive director, voiced his surprise at what he saw.

"Wow. Fifth West looks, it is downright orderly. It looks very good," Minkevitch said.

Moments later, Minkevitch took a peek at the corner of 500 South and 200 West — a spot he knows as a troubled intersection.

"Wow," he said again. "Wow. Second South and Fifth West looks as mellow as I've seen it at this time of day," he said.

'Long-term plan'

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, was with officers from state, county and local agencies — including the Davis County Sheriff's Office, he noted — as they arrested people with outstanding warrants and for drug possession.

Ray wore a bulletproof vest given to him by the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office as he watched them arrest a woman with several warrants who had a syringe and other drug paraphernalia with her.

"This time it's a long-term plan. We're going to come through, we're going to go after the drug dealing. We're going to go after the lawlessness, and we're actually going to get help for the homeless, treatment for mental health, substance abuse," he said.

"This is not just go down and do a show of force and leave. We're going to continue this to eradicate drugs and lawlessness here."

The operation got a green light after beds for treatment were secured, according to Ray. Before it started, he said he walked around the Rio Grande area Saturday night in plain clothes and talked to people.

"A lot of them told me, 'Hey, I'm trying to get off the drugs, but I can't,'" Ray said.

As part of the operation, 36 treatment beds will be made available over the next few weeks, with that number growing to more than 200 in four to six months, according to Cox.

The state hopes to pay for much of Operation Rio Grande's treatment options through a still unapproved extension of pre-Obamacare Medicaid. After being passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in March 2016, HB437 sat unsigned in the White House under President Barack Obama.

Now, Cox says Utah is in talks with President Donald Trump's administration, confident the state can get the waivers approved as soon as November.

But even if the approval doesn't come, Cox said, the state is committed to finding funding for the treatment beds.

Operation Rio Grande was the result of 16 days of frenzied planning, Cox said, and stakeholders believe it will prove a lasting solution to restoring peace and safety in the neighborhood and connecting those in need with treatment and, eventually, job training and employment.

Those stakeholders — including Cox, House Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and representatives from various law enforcement agencies — stood together to introduce the plan in a press conference Monday, then set off on a tour of local newsrooms to further discuss what happens next.

Cox called the multiagency effort — combining state, county and city resources — necessary and unprecedented.

Operation Rio Grande carries a similar name to Operation Diversion, an effort carried out in three phases by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County leaders and police last fall. Police sweeps through the neighborhood were called an attempt to arrest criminal drug dealers preying on the vulnerable homeless population, while those battling addiction were offered treatment over jail.

After three sweeps — during which nearly 70 percent of people detained chose treatment over jail — problems on the crowded downtown blocks persisted, apparently undeterred.

While Cox didn't reference Operation Diversion by name, he emphasized that unlike previous initiatives in the area, Operation Rio Grande is an enduring effort that will dovetail with the promised closure of the Road Home shelter and the opening of three separate homeless resource centers in June 2019.

"We have had operations in the past. This is not a one-and-done where we come in for a day or two or a week or two, this is a two-year operation, a sustained presence," Cox said.

And as the uprooted criminal element moves out to other communities, he promised that law enforcement will follow.

"This is not just about every small geographical area, this is about preventing lawlessness and arresting criminals wherever they go," Cox said.

A community forum to discussion Operation Rio Grande is scheduled for Tuesday at 4 p.m. in the former Dick's sporting goods store at the Gateway.

Contributing: Ben Lockhart