‘Operation Rio Grande’ launched near homeless shelter with arrests, big jump in police presence

Leaders say round of arrests Monday was first phase of three-phase effort.<br>

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grande homeless area in Salt Lake City Monday August 14, 2017.

Operation Rio Grande is a go.

After weeks of secret meetings among state, county and city leaders, the police presence near Salt Lake City’s homeless shelter increased fivefold Monday — and officials said the amped-up enforcement will be sustained for two years.

Day One efforts targeted higher-level offenders — not those who might be violating camping or loitering ordinances — in Phase One of a three-phase plan to first restore order, then find treatment and jobs for those in need.

As yet, there is no “processing center,” as there was in a similar operation last fall conducted by Salt Lake City police. That may come later, if it proves necessary. Nor is there an identification system, as called for by House Speaker Greg Hughes.

But in addition to 300 newfound jail beds, 37 new drug treatment beds will be opened within three weeks, and ”upward of 200 beds” could come on line within the next six months, according to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

“This is targeted, and very surgical.”<br>—Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox

Cox said the collaboration that began 2½ weeks ago with a summit called by Gov. Gary Herbert has resulted in an ”unprecedented” plan ”to restore law, remove the bad guys, and protect our homeless friends and those who reside in and do business in the Rio Grande district.”

Don’t call it a crackdown, he pleaded: ”This is very targeted and very surgical.”

Although officers from multiple agencies were out in force Monday morning — with a Department of Public Safety helicopter circling overhead — they appeared unhurried, and most area homeless and drug users casually packed up to head elsewhere.

The Utah Highway Patrol arrested Samantha Cone, 25, about noon on 500 South near the corner of 300 West for jaywalking. She was detained after troopers discovered she had a half-dozen outstanding misdemeanor warrants. She also had what appeared to be an empty twist of heroin in her possession.

Troopers also arrested a 30-year-old woman in the parking lot of St. Vincent DePaul’s dining kitchen for possession of illegal drugs with intent to sell. Discovered in her bag were nine canisters of spice, a synthetic cannabis drug.

“Life down here ain’t easy,” explained the woman, who said she‘d been on the street for a year.

The area has long been a hotbed of criminal activity and drug use but recently made national headlines with a string of violent crimes, leading Hughes to call for action.

A longer-term plan that has been years in the making would close the shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande by July 2019, after three smaller shelters open in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake.

Cox said Monday that officials had been told the environment is so dangerous that the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall can’t find volunteers. Homeless people are afraid to stay in the shelter, he said, and service providers are scared to work.

Hughes, R-Draper, watched with other state officials from outside his ”war room” — a borrowed space at the south end of The Gateway shopping mall — as law enforcement descended on the area Monday.

State troopers approached one woman, Kory, who was sitting with her back to Catholic Community Services facilities on Rio Grande Street.

They asked if she had identification — no — and if she had drugs — yes. A trooper pulled a container of spice cigarettes from Kory’s bra and placed it on the hood of an unmarked car, before putting Kory in cuffs and ushering her into the passenger seat.

Kory reached toward the window, mouthing ”Baby” to her boyfriend, Adrian, who sat on the sidewalk with a tear rolling down his cheek.

“Keep your head up, bro,” one passer-by told Adrian after Kory was hauled off and as he threw out her blankets. ”What was that for, Midnight? That‘s bulls---,” said another.

Between 100 and 150 officers will be available for the operation, officials said.

Salt Lake City police and UHP troopers walked past about a dozen people lying in sleeping bags and sitting under tarps and on the ground toward a yellow tent near the intermodal transit hub near 600 West and 300 South.

They handcuffed and searched the pockets of two men, pulling out numerous baggies, needles and other objects as onlookers stood by.

Shalese Blackwell said she heard about the possibility of sweeps from none other than Kory, who had read about Operation Rio Grande on Facebook.

Officers didn’t appear to be enforcing camping or loitering ordinances. But Blackwell, who said she has been homeless for about a month since being released from jail, began folding up her tarp and said she worried about the prospect that they would be criminalizing homelessness.

“I was just surviving and had no place to go.”<br>— Kari, a 49-year-old homeless woman trying to kick her heroin habit

Kari, 49, has been camping out in Pioneer Park for more than a year. She’s now on methadone, trying to kick what she said was a four-year heroin addiction.

She has an outstanding warrant for criminal trespass — Kari said she had slept in an abandoned restaurant on a cold winter night — and now fears arrest.

“I didn’t mean to do anything wrong,” she said. “I was just surviving and had no place to go.”

A draft strategic plan from late July obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune shows the group has considered establishing ”stronger camping restrictions and enforcement.” The plan also references a ”ban [on] camping on public streets and waterways” and more frequent street cleanings.

Hughes has previously said that officials will need to provide alternate “safe spaces” before more aggressively enforcing city ordinances. One possible solution is the closure of Rio Grande Street, which runs between the shelter to the west and the day center and soup kitchen to the east, and the creation of an enclosed courtyard between the facilities.

Salt Lake City police Sgt. Sam Wolf, who patrols the Rio Grande area, said he tries to get illegal campers to sleep at the shelter. He also points them to service providers.

Monday, he found Bart Curtis in Pioneer Park. The 59-year-old man, who said he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, told Wolf he needed help.

Wolf called the Community Connection Center at 500 West and 200 South for assistance. Within 10 minutes, two social workers arrived to talk to the man, who said he’s been living on the street for four years.

Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown said that the state has allocated 10 more social workers to join the city personnel working at the center, more than doubling the staff.

Previously, he said, “law enforcement has used the big hammer of arrest, and all the social issues looked like nails to us, and we hit them. Finally, we have the missing pieces of the puzzle to create a holistic process to heal this community.”

Leaders stressed the importance of Utah’s request for a Medicaid expansion waiver, which could come as soon as November and as late as January.

In the lead-up to the operation, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office moved male and female inmates from a pod where they received substance abuse treatment, through a program called CATS, into jails in Weber and Davis counties.

Those inmates will now temporarily receive treatment remotely from Odyssey House in those jails as the state uses freed-up jail beds in Salt Lake County for suspects arrested in Operation Rio Grande.

With help from the Department of Corrections, the county worked last week to open 300 jail beds as part of the operation.

Hughes and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires also emphasized that the law enforcement prong of Operation Rio Grande — its name aside — won’t be confined to the Rio Grande area.

If wrongdoers ”run and try to hide at the Jordan River, we’re going to the Jordan River. If they’re going to South Salt Lake, we’re going to South Salt Lake. West Valley — we’re going there,” Hughes said. ”This is not about a geographic area, per se, as it is what has hurt this community, the state and the people that live in it. And we’re going to eradicate that.”

— Reporters Christopher Smart and Taylor W. Anderson contributed to this report.

PUBLIC FORUM — OPERATION RIO GRANDE<br>The public is invited to a public forum on Operation Rio Grande at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the former Dick’s Sporting Goods in The Gateway shopping mall.