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Rio Grande area is an open-air drug market but removal of jail restrictions offers new hope

SHARE Rio Grande area is an open-air drug market but removal of jail restrictions offers new hope

SALT LAKE CITY — With the former sheriff's controversial booking restrictions lifted, officers patrolling Salt Lake's explosive Rio Grande neighborhood believe they now have a chance make a dent in the state's unabashed open-air drug market.

The change comes even as a study commissioned by the Utah Association of Counties gives a quantified look at what anyone passing the area known as "the block" can see: prolific drug use, undisguised dealing and continual intervention from police officers trying to keep up.

"What is occurring out on the street looks really bad, it looks like complete chaos at times," Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking said. "But we're still out there enforcing those laws."


Salt Lake police officer Stone writes a homeless man a citation for trespassing as part of "Operation Diversion" in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. The operation is a coordinated effort between Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City and drug treatment providers to strategically attack the drug market that has permeated the homeless populations spilling out of downtown homeless shelters. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Under now-former sheriff Jim Winder's felony-only booking policy, frustrated officers found themselves responding repeatedly to the same people for misdemeanor drug offenses — many of which have been reclassified under the 2015 Justice Reinvestment Initiative — unable to send them jail, Wilking said.

With the restriction rolled partially back in June, Wilking says disrupting drug activity through arrests will become "the linchpin to this whole thing."

"We've got to make the court system and the jail system and our enforcement system all work together. And we have not been doing that, and a large part of that was the jail restrictions," Wilking said.

As lawmakers in the city, county and state grapple with how to combat lawlessness in the area, the epicenter of Utah's homeless population, police are investigating three violent killings near The Road Home shelter in a little over a week.


In a message sent to constituents Friday responding to the deaths, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said the jail beds that were opened earlier this summer were quickly filled, promising her office is seeking options to pay for more beds in the facility and "create significant and immediate space."

"We do not want to simply move the problem to another neighborhood, or another city. We need jail beds and treatment beds with case management in order to help those in need and hold criminals accountable for their actions," Biskupski wrote.

Biskupski expressed her confidence that the petition to open up the jail — which she called part of the greater effort by Lt. Governor Spencer Cox and House Speaker Greg Hughes — will receive necessary resources to proceed.

The mayor also emphasized that it is Salt Lake City's leaders, employees, police and service providers who best understand and are working to address the frustrations being raised by residents.

While officers agree that simply locking people up won't overcome addiction or rid the area of its problems, Wilking emphasized, "we're at an epidemic level for heroin. We need to be able to arrest for that."

The Rio Grande area is the pulsing heart of Utah's opioid epidemic, the study commissioned by the Utah Association of Counties and carried out by the Sorenson Impact Center revealed.

Courtesy Jon Zadra, Sorenson Impact Center

Drug incidents — or police incidents where police encountered drugs — were in decline citywide from 2008 to 2012. Then, in the latter half of 2012, drug incidents in the Rio Grande area began a steady upward climb that still continues, jumping from fewer than 50 incidents monthly in 2012 to nearly 250 per month today.

Meanwhile, drug incidents in the rest of Salt Lake City and the number of citizens calling in to report drug activity to police have remained essentially flat through those years, the study found. And the percentage of police traffic stops that result in a drug incidents have jumped from three percent in 2013, to five percent in 2014, and up to 10 percent in 2016.

Daniel Hadley, lead researcher on the report for the Sorenson Impact Center, emphasizes that the data reflects enforcement records, not actual crime. Police will focus resources based on crime patterns, Hadley notes, and this can result in even more arrests in the targeted area.


Courtesy Jon Zadra, Sorenson Impact Center

The police department confirmed that "traffic stop" data doesn't refer only to incidents involving vehicles, but anyone on streets or sidewalks as well.

Heroin incidents have stayed flat throughout the city, but have skyrocketed in Rio Grande, the study found. And while cocaine incidents have dropped slowly citywide since 2008, they have remained steady on the block for the past six years. There is also a recent uptick in unidentified synthetic drugs in the area, not seen elsewhere in Salt Lake.

Wilking emphasized that the only chance of keeping someone from coming back to the block after they're released from jail, potentially only a few hours later, is ensuring resources are waiting to intercept them when they're arrested to either offer or order treatment. Otherwise, he says, offenders are released just as the "dope sickness" sets in, ready to use again.

"I hope that the programs are there, I hope that the money is there, I hope that we've looked at it and said, as a state, like, this is an epidemic and we need to be ready to put money towards these programs and resources," Wilking said.


The Sorenson study was intended to examine crime trends since JRI reforms were implemented in October 2015. It was inconclusive as to whether the relatively young legislation is having positive or negative effects in the state.

Among the major concerns about the JRI reforms is the fact that Medicaid expansion, which would have paid for substance abuse and mental health treatment meant to take the place of imprisonment, ultimately failed in the state, leaving a gap millions of dollars wide.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who has said repeatedly that JRI is doomed to fail without the promised funding, said the study reaffirms the grave reality of how serious the situation has gotten at Rio Grande.

"That just put numbers to what we're already seeing," McAdams said. "It is as bad as the numbers say it is."

While McAdams believes the underfunded JRI reforms are driving the problems downtown, so too is the nationwide opioid epidemic that has taken root in Utah, he says.

The Sorenson study does not conclude the steady rise of drug incidents on the block is a result of JRI reforms. And with the booking restriction gone, Wilking says he and his fellow officers hope JRI will have a chance to work.

"I think we're at the starting point of what this really could be," Wilking said. "We are getting to the point where we are going to see the pieces starting to work together, with the restrictions lifted, and hopefully we're seeing people put into programs."

The surge in drug incidents represents efforts by police to go into the Rio Grande area and break up criminal activity being hidden behind the homeless population there, Wilking says. He also speculates that more people are coming to buy and use drugs in the city, where 24-hour availability and easy access is a secret to no one.

"There's more drugs, there's more people, there's more work that has to be done," Wilking said. "Nowhere else in the state is like this."

Contributing: Eric Schulzke