The much-anticipated but largely secret “Operation Rio Grande” law enforcement crackdown planned in downtown Salt Lake City may launch before its leaders have lined up many treatment beds for the addicts expected to be part of the effort, according to internal documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
An email and two draft documents regarding the effort involving dozens of officials — coordinated by House Speaker Greg Hughes, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams — provide the broadest look so far into the scope of the preparations.
Ongoing discussions are aimed at forging an overall strategy that includes teams focused on law enforcement, jail beds and drug treatment. The large group involved in the multiple-front preparations has representatives from public health, workforce services and law enforcement.
Some legislators also are part of the discussion, and their task includes assessing whether new laws are needed and whether the Legislature should convene a special session on the matter, according to the documents and recent interviews.
After the state Department of Corrections helped free up space for up to 300 people in the Salt Lake County jail this week, an increase in police activity in the area could begin before private groups can free up space for treatment of individuals suffering from addiction.
“We also heard from the Lt. Governor that law enforcement operations may begin prior to there being any treatment options available,” wrote Noella Sudbury, director of the county’s Criminal Justice Advisory Council, in an email to more than two dozen people on Monday. “This is obviously not an ideal situation, but they have asked our committee to think about what we can offer people initially if we don’t have any residential treatment lined up.”
The email indicated talks would continue through the week, and negotiations on other related issues have rapidly evolved. But most of the parties involved refuse to provide public details. Gov. Gary Herbert’s office, among others, has declined comment.
State and local officials are working with private groups to rapidly expand treatment options in the region, according to the documents. They’re also looking outside the county and across Utah to see whether there are treatment beds available elsewhere.
“We were asked to go catalog all treatment available,” said Lincoln Shurtz, government affairs director with the Utah Association of Counties, who is involved in the treatment portion of discussions. “If they decided to move folks out of Salt Lake County, they want to understand what types of treatment would be available to support those individuals.”
The documents show the group has identified very short-, short- and long-term plans for treatment options.
The short-term goal is to free up an additional 100 treatment beds by the end of the year at a cost of $1.3 million. There are nonprofits willing to implement “aggressive expansion” of their capacity, the documents show, if they are assured long-term funding commitments.
“While expensive, this is a major need in our State and there will be no solution to this problem without this component,” the document says.
At the earliest, 37 beds could be available by Aug. 28, for just under $500,000. Another 72 beds could be available by Nov. 1, created by the expansion of an existing facility and the opening of a new one.
The long-term strategy on treatment is ensuring an application to expand health coverage for very low-income residents through Medicaid is approved. The group is hoping the federal government approves the plan by Jan. 1.
One legislator working with the group assessing treatment — which is being led by McAdams and Hughes — said the group was focused on securing treatment options.
“My first concern is to ensure that when we take action to get folks into treatment that we’ve got the facilities and the services and providers there and ready to go,” said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City.
One document referring to plans to control crime in and around The Road Home indicates private security inside the 1,100-bed shelter was recently shifted away from the nonprofit operator and taken over by the building’s owner, Shelter the Homeless. That change comes with county funding and in consultation with Salt Lake City police, the sheriff’s office and the district attorney.
“They will coordinate to restore law and order both inside and outside the shelter,” according to the document.