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'Be our eyes and ears:' Operation Rio Grande leaders urge neighborhoods to report 'ripple effect'

SALT LAKE CITY — Fairpark resident Tiffany Sandberg said every morning when she lets her dog outside, "she has a fit" because someone is camping next to her backyard shed.

Sandberg said just yesterday her neighbor had to "literally evict a drug dealer out of his boat" sitting outside his house.

And recently, Sandberg said she watched a man pick up a prostitute off the street in her neighborhood.

Since the beginning of Operation Rio Grande about two weeks ago, Sandberg (who is a Salt Lake School Board member) said these kinds of problems have swelled in her neighborhood near Jackson Elementary, 750 W. 200 North.

"We know the police are doing a lot and they're trying really hard to help us, I just think this is such an insurmountable problem there might not be enough police officers in the city or the state to keep our neighborhoods safe, too," Sandberg said.

"I really don't appreciate in order to gentrify the Rio Grande, we're pushing all the crime into our neighborhoods," Sandberg added.

Sandberg was one of about 50 Salt Lake City residents who came to the Poplar Grove Neighborhood Alliance meeting Friday night to voice their concerns and ask questions about Operation Rio Grande — the massive, multi-jurisdictional law enforcement effort to tackle crime and help the needy in Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood.

Christopher Ruelas, a Poplar Grove resident, said the other day his 3-year-old son "brought me a needle."

"I searched him and made sure he didn't poke himself," Ruelas said. "But that's scary."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires all took turns explaining efforts to follow the "ripple effect" of Operation Rio Grande and the impact it's been having on surrounding neighborhoods.

They urged community members to continue monitoring their areas and report any problems to Salt Lake City Police at 801-535-3000 or the Operation Rio Grande Command Center at 385-266-6938.

The speaker urged neighbors to "be our eyes and ears."

"We will follow this wherever it goes," Hughes pledged. "Has it been 100 percent bulletproof? No, people have moved. We have seen that ripple effect, but we have committed that where they go, we will follow."

Brown said "like rain on parched dirt," Salt Lake City is now getting the help it's needed from the state and Squire's team. "Have we done enough? No, but I'm telling you the leaders behind us are here to help," he said.

"Please stick with us," Biskupski urged residents. "This isn't easy for any of us, but at the end of this I am confident we will land in a place we'll all be grateful for."

While some community meetings in response to Salt Lake City's efforts to site new homeless resource centers earlier this year were raucous, Friday's gathering was calm and respectful, with residents at times applauding leaders for their efforts.

But it was not without concern and questions of whether leaders were capable of helping as many people as they were arresting.

As of Friday, Squires said 629 people had been arrested since the beginning of the operation. Of those, 115 were for felonies and 514 were for misdemeanors. Also of the total arrested, 301 have been released due to lack of capacity, on bail or for court, according to Justin Hoyal, chief deputy of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office.

"Why are we only getting a third of treatment beds compared to the arrests (you've) made?" asked Nick Godfrey, a member of Utahns Against Police Brutality, referring to the operation's second phase and leaders' aim to have 200 new treatment beds become available by the end of the year.

Hughes said new jail beds and treatments beds have both been challenging to acquire — but the treatment beds have taken longer because they require agreements with the private sector.

Hughes again referred to Medicaid waivers that state leaders are being told will be approved by the federal administration later this year, bringing $70 million in federal funds and $30 million in state funds to fund treatment programs.

"But if they were not to, we are a state are committed to that," Hughes said, noting that because of that commitment, homeless providers are now able to start preparing bed expansions.

The total cost of Operation Rio Grande, however, remained unclear Friday night. Though Hughes had previously said earlier this week he'd expected budget numbers to "crystallize" after a meeting on Wednesday, he said Friday "it seems that I was over ambitious believing that we would have buttoned up a budget of sources, uses, and who would pay for what."

Regardless, Hughes has said the state would not have begun the operation without knowing it could afford it. Without being specific, Hughes has said it will likely cost in the "tens of millions" after factoring in Medicaid waivers.