SALT LAKE CITY — A gathering of Ballpark residents Thursday night sounded echoes of another meeting nearly two years ago, when some of the same neighbors confronted then-House Speaker Greg Hughes over the ripple effects of Operation Rio Grande.
Now more than two years after the operation dispersed crime and spread out homelessness from the troubled Rio Grande neighborhood to help reform Salt Lake County’s homeless system, Ballpark residents are still complaining of drug dealing, property crimes, camping and loitering in their area.
But now there’s a new level of fear for the Ballpark community — and they’re frustrated enough by the city’s response they’re looking to the two candidates running for mayor for help.
Ballpark Community Council chairwoman Amy Hawkins began Thursday night’s meeting, co-hosted with the Central 9th Community Council, at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center with a presentation highlighting that there have been four homicides within two blocks in the Ballpark neighborhood in the past year.
Those include the July stabbing of a clerk at the 1300 South Maverik, an Oct. 8 strangling of a woman at the Main Street hotel, a Sept. 28 drive-by shooting near Harrison Avenue and Major Street, and an Aug. 27, 2018, fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old boy on Kensington Avenue.
Hawkins also pointed to several violent crimes that have happened in the Ballpark neighborhood in the past year, including an attempted home invasion and shooting on April 10 near the Smith’s Ballpark, and an apparent assault of a woman that left her in a life-threatening condition in an alley near 1351 S. Jefferson St., about a block away from the school where Ballpark residents met Thursday night.
Noting police say the crimes are all unrelated, Hawkins said she finds that “deeply concerning.”
“What is it about this geographic area that has produced an atmosphere that’s so tolerant to violence and crime?” she asked.
Hawkins called on fellow residents to discuss what can be done “immediately” to make the neighborhood “less hospitable to these kinds of problems.”
Thursday night’s meeting — attended by both Salt Lake City mayoral candidates Sen. Luz Escamilla and City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, as well as other City Council members and state lawmakers representing the area — came after more than 60 community members signed a July 30 letter sent to Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Police Chief Mike Brown requesting the city and police department work together on how the neighborhood could “use nuisance ordinances and other mechanisms to change practices in our neighborhood’s crime-ridden businesses.”
A representative from Biskupski’s office, Tim Crosgrove, attended Thursday night’s meeting, as did several officials from the Salt Lake City Police Department, to answer questions — but frustrations remained about how long Ballpark residents have been dealing with crime in their areas.
As he told the former House speaker nearly two years ago, Chris Derbidge said he’s still walking his now teenage daughter to her school bus stop because of homeless camps and drug dealing in the area.
“You’re not telling me what you’re doing for them,” Derbidge said, raising his voice as Crosgrove began explaining homeless services will be different when all three new homeless resource centers open. “You’re not telling me what you’re doing for my daughter.”
Salt Lake Police Capt. Stefhan Bennett explained police officers can only arrest someone if they’re actually violating a law — and oftentimes camping and loitering laws can be tricky.
So residents worked together writing a list of suggestions for immediate action, including requesting more bike patrol officers, more police camera presence, updates to the city’s nuisance ordinance, more ways to address people stealing and using shopping carts, demolition of vacant properties, increased street lighting (particularly around the new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City), camping resistant landscaping, and an enforceable anti-camping and anti-loitering perimeter around schools and bus stops.
Increased street lighting around the homeless resource centers came up as an issue two years ago with the meeting with Hughes — but the neighborhood has yet to see any new lighting, even as one of the homeless resource centers is already taking clients and the other is expected to begin taking clients next week.
“That’s been a real disappointment,” Hawkins told the Deseret News on Friday, adding that her neighborhood “can’t wait” for the city’s street lighting masterplan currently underway.
Mendenhall said she’s open to all of the neighborhood’s suggestions — pointing out she’s already taken action in several ways as a member the council to address concerns, including working with the council to advance the city’s new park rangers program (an extension of the bike patrol program reinstated four years ago) ahead of schedule.
Mendenhall also pointed out to neighbors a major reconstruction of 300 West sidewalks and lighting that was approved years ago but is still coming to fruition is “not good enough,” and she’s “not happy” that it’s taken so long for issues to be addressed in neighborhoods. The City Council also plans to look at updating its nuisance ordinance.
She told the Deseret News in an interview Friday she’s particularly interested in reviewing with city attorneys whether the city can create a school and bus stop overlay zone to prohibit camping and loitering — as well as looking to advance street lighting improvements, noting that she and other council members have worked to create a grant fund for communities and businesses wanting to purchase lighting with city dollars in the meantime, while the city works on its street lighting master plan.
Also, Mendenhall said “the time is ripe” to make “strategic redevelopment investments” in the Ballpark area, and if she’s elected mayor she pledged to look at revitalizing the city-owned parking lot north of the ballpark.
“We can’t underestimate the impact of violent crimes on the community surrounding it, even though other crime rates have been on decline and are still on decline,” Mendenhall said, noting that police data indicates other crimes in other areas of the city are lowering.
Escamilla also told the Deseret News she’d explore the Ballpark neighborhood’s list of suggestions — but called for swift action on an overlay for anti-camping and anti-loitering in school zones.
“Some of those policies, especially for children, should be addressed immediately,” she said, saying it should be hashed out with the school district and perhaps at the legislative level if it can’t be done at the City Council level.
Escamilla also said the city needs to figure out how to address its police shortage to help more officers get hired and on the streets fast.
Longer term, Escamilla said as mayor she’d ensure the state invests more in homelessness and crime issues in Salt Lake City — on top of the more than $68 million already spent on Operation Rio Grande and tens of millions more for the homeless system overhaul — to ensure people experiencing homelessness receive “wrap around” services in and out of shelters.
“If we have enough infrastructure that provides wrap-around services, not only from mental health or substance abuse but also peer-to-peer ... we can help people get stabilized,” Escamilla said.