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ACLU decries Operation Rio Grande's surge of arrests, lack of treatment

SALT LAKE CITY — As a collaborative law enforcement team closed out a third day of its intensified police presence combatting crime in the troubled Rio Grande area, the American Civil Liberties Union decried the effort for its lack of treatment options and its surge of arrests.

In a lengthy statement, the organization criticized the two-year plan dubbed Operation Rio Grande, which state and local leaders say aims to cut down crime and serve those in need around the area known for its burgeoning homeless population, open-air drug trade and unsafe conditions.

"In its current phase, this operation appears to rely on simply more of the same ineffective attempts to control the complex social issues of poverty, substance use disorder and mental illness through the same traditional mechanisms of our broken criminal justice system," the ACLU wrote.

The disparity was highlighted, the organization wrote, by the rush to secure 300 jail beds designated for the operation while a mere 37 additional treatment beds won't be available for a few more weeks.

Stakeholders have said treatment options through the operation could include as many as 200 new treatment beds. To pay for them, the state is currently communicating with members of President Donald Trump's administration seeking approval of Medicaid waivers that could bring in $70 million in federal funding to help pay for treatment options, matched with an additional $30 million from the state.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires reported Wednesday that 71 arrests were made during the operation's second day, bringing the 48-hour total of people booked into jail up to 158. It was unknown how many had later been released.

Of those 158 arrests — 57 of which were related to drugs and paraphernalia — 10 cases involved felony allegations, according to police. Seventy-one people were booked just on outstanding warrants, while 55 face the possibility of new charges alongside existing warrants. One gun was recovered.

An average 150 officers from multiple jurisdictions are patrolling the approximately three-block area daily, Squires said.

Specific details about the circumstances leading to the arrests were not provided and Squires said any connections to drug dealers or cartels are still being investigated.

In addition to arrests, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown insisted compassion underscores the policing efforts, highlighting the experiences of a pregnant woman who was given hospital care for substance abuse issues and a man now receiving medical treatment for a pervasive staph infection that could have turned fatal.

The ACLU emphasized that while it was consulted in recent weeks by some who were developing the three-phase plan — which stakeholders say will uproot criminals preying on the area, connect addicted and mentally ill members of the homeless population with treatment, and provide job training to those improving their lives — the organization did not sanction or approve the effort.

Streets in the Rio Grande district, which have been plagued by squalor and drug activity in recent months, were considerably quieter Wednesday as police moved through the area. The Salt Lake County Health Department was on hand to clean the area, and daily street cleanings are expected to continue.

Squires noted that many people who frequent the neighborhood, including homeless men and women and the criminals who prey on them, are dispersing to other areas.

While law enforcement involved in Operation Rio Grande remains in contact with other police jurisdictions, Squires went on to urge residents who are seeing illegal activity in their neighborhoods to report issues by calling 801-799-3686 or by submitting comments through

For areas seeing an influx of homeless individuals, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said social workers are responding in order to reconnect them with services.