Public relations is a necessary thing — especially when you’re executing a law enforcement “coordinated effort” (don’t use the word “roundup”) involving the homeless — er, that is “people experiencing homelessness” and folks with substance use disorder (never say “addicts”).
It’s not unusual for government or private entities to crank up the wordsmithing machinery in order to put the best face on current events.
In this case, Salt Lake City and others involved in Operation Rio Grande are seeking to ensure the public has a positive view of the “intelligence-led” initiative to “restore order” through “directed patrols” “augmented by partner agencies.”
Recently, City Hall went so far as to gin up lists of “words to avoid” and “words to use” surrounding Operation Rio Grande that seeks to drive drug traffic and violence from the area around The Road Home shelter.
It’s not that officials are trying to hide anything, said City Hall spokesman Matthew Rojas, it just a method of more clearly communicating.
Do not call the landmark action a “sweep,” a “surge” or a “crackdown,” according to the Aug. 14 email disseminated to officials and staffers that was obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open-records request.
Nonetheless, a July 27 document titled “Draft Strategic Plan: Operation Rio Grande Downtown SLC,” refers to the strategy as “a crackdown on drug trafficking and usage in the area.”
The numbers would seem to support that description: Operation Rio Grande logged 158 arrests in its first 48 hours, more than 1,000 in the first month.
The City Hall memo spelling out “words to avoid” clearly looks to soften such language to provide the public with a less jarring view.
According to the memo, it’s better to say “people experiencing homelessness” rather than referring to that group simply as “homeless.”
Instead of calling some of the people in question “addicts,” it’s more humane to say folks with “substance use disorder.”
A number of city and state officials discussed terminology so “that we could all use the same language” to clarify the Operation Rio Grande and activities associated with it, Rojas explained.
Also, they did not want to brand people as addicts or homeless, he said.
“We are trying to describe a situation and not who they are,” he said. “We didn’t want to create an ‘us versus them’ mentality in our city.”
The memo also stresses that law enforcement “is not criminalizing homelessness or addiction.”
The Tribune reported Monday that through Sept. 13 there were 1,106 jail bookings from Operation Rio Grande, only 175 involving new felony charges.
Half of those arrested were released the same day or the day after they were booked.
The Tribune earlier reported that in reaction to Operation Rio Grande, homeless campers were scattering throughout Salt Lake City neighborhoods and beyond.
Deeda Seed, a former City Council member and one-time chief of staff for Mayor Rocky Anderson, cautioned about using language that is less than direct.
“I can see how they want to talk about homelessness in a positive way,” she said. “But with what’s going on down there, it’s a little discordant. There are some hard truths down there and we should not minimize them. It could lead people to believe [Operation Rio Grand] is an unmitigated success, and it isn’t.”
Words to avoid
Words to use
- Directed patrols
- Restoring order
- Augmented by partner agencies
- Coordinated effort
- Criminal element
- People experiencing homelessness
- Substance use disorder