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Jay Evensen: Where will the bad guys go?

Law enforcement conduct Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017.
Law enforcement conduct Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY —

Where do they go when they scatter?

I strolled through the Rio Grande area of downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Things were noticeably quieter than in recent weeks, where this was the scene of violent encounters, drug deals and murders. Operation Rio Grande, which started Monday, had had an effect. That was obvious. The place wasn’t empty. The homeless still huddled in small circles, talking, waiting, surviving. But the number of people there had dropped.

But where did the drug dealers and other criminals go? Or, perhaps more to the point, considering many of them probably were arrested Monday, where will they go?

“We think the scattering you see, they’re waiting for us to go away so they can come right back,” House Speaker Greg Hughes, speaking of those criminals, told the combined editorial boards of KSL and the Deseret News this week. “If we don’t go away, that scattering, we think, goes and stays away.”

But if demand remains for what they sell, will they really just pack up and leave the Wasatch Front? Sure, much of that demand may be leaving with the addicted people who are being taken to treatment facilities, but what about the suburban residents in their fancy cars who, I’ve been told numerous times, frequent the area to get what they want? Do they throw up their hands and decide to get a hobby?

One key to Operation Rio Grande, the thing that officials say makes it different than the countless previous police actions in the area dating back at least 20 years, will be its staying power.

Monday, we are told, was the start of a long and sustained police presence in the area, involving several jurisdictions and overseen by the state, specifically Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Cox was at the meeting, where normally buttoned-down elected officials were dressed in casual knit shirts that implied hard work ahead. “Wherever the bad guys go, we’re going with them,” he said.

That implies a long-term effort, indeed. No operation can rid a metro area of bad guys completely.

This action has a different feel to it than the ones before. Homelessness, substance abuse and drug trafficking have long vexed this neighborhood, with its most visible manifestation being the crime that plagues Pioneer Park, a downtown landmark along major thoroughfares. Each attempt to address it has been characterized by a temporary show of force and, on some occasions, an investment of city funds in park improvements.

But the scattering, as Hughes described it, always just waited for the heat to clear. Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown acknowledged as much Monday with an interesting insight into street culture.

“When we pull out,” he said, “It’s two-for day.” Drug dealers tell their clients that, because they have been inconvenienced by the police presence, they can purchase twice the drugs for the same price.

“There are not going to be two-for-the-price-of-one days any more,” he said.

Don’t get me wrong. What the state, city, county and numerous jurisdictions announced this week is exactly the kind of concerted approach that is needed. The plan has three simultaneous phases that aim to provide detox and treatment, individual care and, ultimately, the restorative effects of dignity and a job.

Beginning in June 2019, three new shelters, scattered throughout the valley, will open to serve different demographic segments of the homeless. The Road Home on Rio Grande Street will close.

As Hughes told the editorial boards, right now the criminals are overwhelming the shelter and, in many cases, scaring away the truly needy, who have little choice but to sleep on the streets.

While I believe a large single shelter located far from the urban core would be more effective, the scattered shelter, or resource center, approach will be better than what currently exists.

But, for the good of everyone along the Wasatch Front, politicians have to keep their eyes on the scattering.

Brown said the Rio Grande area will be in good shape two years from now when the new shelters open and the police presence disappears. “I think it goes away, I really do,” he said.

Perhaps he’s right, but that doesn’t mean it disappears completely.