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Operation Rio Grande makes 87 arrests on first day

SALT LAKE CITY — On the second day of a large, multijurisdictional effort to eradicate crime and offer help in Salt Lake's volatile Rio Grande neighborhood, the enhanced police presence was impossible to miss.

Along every stretch of the three-block area surrounding the Road Home homeless shelter and service centers, law enforcement Tuesday patrolled the sidewalks, searched backpacks and asked questions.

The policing effort of the three-phase initiative, named Operation Rio Grande, began Monday in an attempt to uproot the entrenched criminal element taking cover amid the homeless population, according to state leaders. And as public safety and order are restored, they say, treatment and job training for those trying to rebuild their lives will follow.

In 24 hours, 160 officers from multiple agencies made 87 arrests in the area, none of which involved use of force, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires reported. As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, 33 of those people had been released from jail.

While Squires acknowledged not all of the arrests were related to drug distribution — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Monday that the day's arrests represented "the worst of the worst" of the area's criminal element — officers have been told to focus on people who are dealing.

Specific details about the offenses that led to the arrests were not provided.

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Stakeholders in the plan promise the aggressive enforcement is targeting drug dealers, not those living on the streets. But as he watched officers secure handcuffs on a man they found loading a syringe with heroin outside the Road Home, Greg Weatheroy wondered whether police can tell the difference.

"What I'm seeing is, when (police) walk up to people, the first thing they say is, 'Where's your pipe? Where's your needle?'" Weatheroy said. "They don't even ask you your name. They want to know, 'Where's your needle?' That kind of affects me a little."

Not everyone who is homeless uses or sells drugs, he said, and "some of us just don't have anywhere to go right now."

Weatheroy said he's been in and out of the shelter for four years as he has struggled to live on his small, fixed income. The 56-year-old man from California said he appreciates the shelter's work, and he tries to give back by helping patrol outside the shelter in the evenings in an effort to resolve problems without having to call police.

But with more drugs on the block than he's ever seen, and following the spate of homicides nearby in recent weeks, Weatheroy said he supports the wave of policework, though he wonders whether bringing in officers from various departments has decreased confidence in Salt Lake police.

"I'm very much against what I've seen here in the past month or so, with all the shootings and the stabbings and the fights going on. It's really getting out of hand, to be honest with you. Something needs to be done," he said.

According to a representative from the Utah Highway Patrol, whose troopers helped make the arrest, the man Weatheroy saw cuffed in front of the shelter was booked into jail for drug possession and two possession-related felony warrants.

An estimated 100 officers worked in the Rio Grande area Tuesday, according to Squires. He wasn't sure how long the police presence will stay at that level as the operation, expected to last two years, gets underway.

"In that initial phase, we need to go in and we need to establish that law enforcement presence that does root out that criminal element that we have described," Squires said, noting that the Department of Public Safety and UHP expect to be involved for the full two years.

For now, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said each department participating in the operation is responsible for assigning and paying its own officers to work in the Rio Grande area.

"We're not here to quibble or worry about overtime. The work is more important. We'll figure that out later," Brown said.

Lana Dalton, director of the area's Community Connection Center, said the center has expanded its hours and outreach efforts as part of the operation, hoping to connect more people to services.

Dalton and the center's seven other social workers partnered with officers working in the area Monday, while additional counselors from other areas came in to help. A social worker is also on-call to respond to incidents in the area 24 hours a day.

However, while the center usually serves around 150 to 180 people in a day, only 60 came in to the center Monday.

"We think a lot of that was that it's a lot of officers (in the area)," Dalton said. "People left the area (Monday)."

Dalton said the center hopes to remain connected to people in the area through its outreach work.

So far, the second phase of Operation Rio Grande, which will focus on assessing needs and offering treatment, has not yet come online, meaning those being booked into jail don't have treatment options waiting for them beyond what is normally available.

"This isn't, at this moment, seen as an invitation into treatment as much as it is about identifying and locking up people who are creating a public safety concern in the Rio Grande area," said Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert.

The timeline to make treatment resources available through Operation Rio Grande is still being laid out, Edwards said, and state, county and city leaders participated in an all-day meeting about how to bring phase two into effect.

Proposed treatment and services through the operation include more staffing in the Community Connection Center and the addition of 200 new treatment beds to address mental health, substance use and detox support.

According to Edwards, 37 of those beds are expected to become available at the end of the month, with about 70 more in the works for late September or early October.

The state expects to be able to support those approximately 100 beds through existing resources, he said, while funding for the remaining 100 beds is reliant on a still unapproved Medicaid extension.

Cox said Monday that Utah is in talks with President Donald Trump's administration about the Medicaid waivers, which if approved could make $70 million in federal funding available to the state. Utah would then be able to match an additional $30 million.

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

While an emphasis was placed on making jail space available for the plan, access to treatment through Operation Rio Grande won't always begin with an arrest, Edwards said. Some people may be connected to the new treatment beds through service providers such as the Community Connection Center or by placement in drug court, he said.

Regarding the third phase of the operation, which is being called the "dignity through work" phase, planning is just beginning for a partnership between public and private entities that would make more job training available in the area, Edwards said.

A committee to conceptualize the program, led by Utah Jazz President Steve Starks, could have a proposal ready by Oct. 1, Edwards said.