ACLU: Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City was ‘heavy-handed,’ led to long-term ‘collateral damage’
House Speaker Greg Hughes slams report as ‘intellectually dishonest’
SALT LAKE CITY — Calling it a "hammer" that has treated people experiencing homelessness and drug addiction like "nails," the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah issued a draft report Tuesday criticizing Operation Rio Grande's results thus far.
In turn, one of Operation Rio Grande's loudest champions, House Speaker Greg Hughes, responded with fire, calling the report "manipulative" and "intellectually dishonest."
The report, titled "Calculating the Real Cost of Operation Rio Grande," details an analysis of the multiagency effort that was launched 14 months ago to root out crime and lawlessness in the neighborhood around the downtown homeless shelter.
While political leaders have lauded the effort to target the "worst of the worst" and to help connect the state's homeless and drug addicts to services, the ACLU wrote in the eight-page report that law enforcement has "dominated" the operation's efforts and minor offenders are feeling the "collateral damage."
An analysis of Operation Rio Grande's more than 5,000 arrests showed the effort has resulted in about 13 arrests for every person placed in a new treatment program, according to the report.
"The 13-to-1 imbalance is a direct result of the law-enforcement dominance of (Operation Rio Grande) from its inception," the ACLU wrote in the report.
Since its August 2017 launch, Operation Rio Grande has resulted in 5,024 arrests, with nearly 80 percent of the arrests for misdemeanors or active warrants, according to the report. Comparatively, only 234 new treatment beds have been created, and 120 people have pleaded into drug court.
In the report, ACLU officials called Operation Rio Grande a "hurried and heavy-handed response conceived with little appreciation for its long-term consequences."
"Being homeless is not a crime, yet thousands of individuals living in or frequenting the Rio Grande neighborhood were detained, jailed and released with no additional help and the added burden of warrants, fines and a criminal record," ACLU officials wrote. "Despite a few inspirational yet anecdotal success stories, the vast majority of individuals ensnared in (the operation) are no better off than they were before."
What's missing from the "official narrative," ACLU officials say, "is the burden created by these thousands of new arrests, fresh criminal records and increased jail time — due primarily to minor offenses."
Hughes, R-Draper, who helped spearhead Operation Rio Grande, was incensed by the report when reached by the Deseret News Tuesday.
"I'm incredibly disappointed," the speaker said. "It makes me so angry."
Hughes added, "For anyone to look in a myopic way toward law enforcement and the efforts in some heavy-handed way, it's manipulative and intellectually dishonest and doesn't begin to reflect on the good that's gone on over the last year."
Hughes said that although state leaders have repeatedly said their work is not done, the Rio Grande neighborhood is unmistakably different a year later — now a place where homeless service providers and their volunteers are no longer scared to work.
Hughes also said he invites ACLU officials to come to a drug court graduation planned for Wednesday, where about 15 Operation Rio Grande arrestees will celebrate sobriety and get their criminal records expunged.
"I think you can find a myriad of people that would argue the things that have happened made their lives better," Hughes said.
Jason Stevenson, an ACLU spokesman, said while Operation Rio Grande has had some laudable aspects, the effort has been "dominated" by law enforcement, and focused more "on a place and not necessarily on the individuals."
Stevenson said the aim of the report was to restart a conversation about Operation Rio Grande so perhaps leaders can make changes over the next eight months before the downtown homeless shelter is slated to close.
Hughes said he welcomes the ACLU to join the discussion — a conversation the speaker said has been going on ever since the summer of 2017. "They've never been turned away," he said.
Michelle Schmitt, a spokeswoman for Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, issued a statement Tuesday in response to the report on behalf of the county, which has led out on expanding treatment options.
"We have always been treatment-focused and are encouraged by positive stories of people who are choosing to turn their lives around as a result of Operation Rio Grande," Schmitt said. "Public safety is our priority, and people who break the law must be held accountable. We still have work to do, but our efforts together have made a safer (neighborhood) and lives are changing for the better."