Crime is down in Salt Lake City, but police say Operation Rio Grande shifted homeless people to other areas

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Officer Steve Masters points out areas he regularly patrols in the Glendale and Rose Park neighborhoods on Wed. Aug. 8, 2018. Masters, a member of the West side policing bicycle squad, spends half the time on a bike and the other half working out of his patrol vehicle and says he has seen an increase in criminal activity in the area he patrols following Operation Rio Grande, which is nearing the halfway mark.

Officer Stephen Masters is a few minutes into his shift when the first call comes in.

“There’s a male trespasser out in front of the Leatherby’s acting strange. Just urinated on the ground.”

As Masters pulls into the parking lot on North Temple, just west of Interstate 15, an employee meets him. She says the man messed up her flower beds, and indeed, a swath of the yellow and orange carnations outside the restaurant’s door is flattened.

Officers find the man on the sidewalk. He doesn’t have shoes, and his eyes are glassy.

“You realize the flower bed is not the restroom,” Masters says.

He doesn’t respond to much of what officers ask him. When he does give them his name, it is an alias. At one point, he tries to walk away. Masters finally gives him an ultimatum: Tell us your real name and get a citation, or don’t and go to jail.

By way of an answer, the man — who is sitting — lies on his side and rolls into the officers’ feet. They put him in handcuffs.

These kinds of calls are routine in the growing homeless district along North Temple in west Salt Lake City. Since Operation Rio Grande, which began in earnest one year ago Tuesday, police departments across the Salt Lake Valley are reporting an uptick in the homeless folks they encounter, but nowhere is it worse than in this area. This stretch of North Temple has had its problems with drugs and prostitution, but not like it’s been over the past year, according to city cops.

While some advocates for the homeless — like Utah Harm Reduction Coalition founder Mindy Vincent — see the operation as a way to remove the visible homeless problem, law enforcement officials say it is the predicted and necessary repercussion of reducing crime and restoring the rule of law in the Rio Grande district.

So far, Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires said the plan appears to be working.

“I think that where those pockets have come up, that we are gradually having success,” he said, pointing to a nearly 26 percent reduction in crime in Salt Lake City over the past year.

That trend holds true in all City Council districts, despite increases with certain types of crimes, such as robbery, assault and burglary in Districts 5 and 7, south of downtown. Data show the biggest drop — a 42 percent decrease — in overall crime in the Rio Grande district.

City police spokesman Sgt. Brandon Shearer said he wouldn’t link the uptick in Districts 5 and 7 to a migration of transient people from downtown, though it would fit with anecdotes coming from South Salt Lake police.

South Salt Lake is surrounded on its east and north sides by the two districts, and the city’s police chief said his officers have been dealing with an influx of homeless people since the crackdown.

Before that, Chief Jack Carruth said, his officers averaged about 60 to 65 contacts a month with people who are homeless. In August, when the operation began, that number jumped to 230 a month.

Part of that, Carruth said, is because homeless people arrested in downtown Salt Lake City are being taken to the jail in South Salt Lake. When they’re released, they stay.

He said he’s expecting the number to increase once a new 300-bed men’s shelter in South Salt Lake is operational in the next year.

In West Jordan, police spokesman Sgt. J.C. Holt said officers have been seeing more homeless people on street corners, though he doesn’t have any data to quantify how many. He said his city didn’t anticipate an increase of homeless people after the operation and hadn’t thought to keep track of encounters until after the sweeping crackdown on crime in Salt Lake City.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Officer Wyatt Sackett check his notes on a prior arrest as he checks license plates for outstanding warrants while patrolling areas along North Temple in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. Members of the west side policing bicycle squad patrol Glendale and Rose Park with an emphasis along North Temple, where they have seen an increase in criminal activity following Operation Rio Grande, now nearing the halfway mark.

After Masters loads the man into his patrol vehicle, Officer Wyatt Sackett goes back on patrol.

Sackett, who is 27 and worked on the downtown bike squad before being reassigned to the west side, says he sees a lot of the same folks he used to see in the Rio Grande area now hanging out on street corners and parking lots on North Temple.

A few minutes later, he hears a dispatch from Masters: The man he just arrested keeps unbuckling his seat belt and rolling around in the back seat.

Sackett finds Masters parked in front of a hotel, about a mile away. Sgt. Devin Stutz explains as Masters straps the man into a restraining device called The Wrap, a sort of full-body straitjacket with an optional hood for people who spit at officers, and handles on the back to help officers lift the man.

Masters, Stutz says, believes the man had just done drugs before officers arrested him. While police found none on him, they did see some packaging on the ground.

“It’s an everyday, almost everything,” Sackett says, “where [people are] unresponsive or out of it.”

Sometimes Stutz’s officers will arrest someone for possession and two hours later, they’ll see that same person out on the same corner. Arrestees know this. Sometimes the people they arrest ask officers if they’ll be released as soon as they’re booked.

Sackett says it’s frustrating.

What happens next?

Shearer said arrests won’t determine the success of Operation Rio Grande. It’s what happens afterward that counts.

“If they don’t have a place to go, and if they don’t have mental health treatment,” he said, “it’s not helping solve the problem.”

Nearly 5,100 people have been arrested since Operation Rio Grande began. The vast majority of those who’ve been released from jail — about 1,950 — were freed because of overcrowding, according to a Salt Lake County jail database. About 1,700 others have been released, either because of a judge’s order, time served, or pretrial and pre-file circumstances.

Only 47 have been released into community mental health programs, while 31 were sentenced to serve time in the state prison.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Union for Street Solidarity provides material aid for people living on the streets with an aim to end homelessness, addiction, and alienation as they sets up a table next to the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition who was providing a syringe exchange at 865 W. North Temple on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. The dispersal of people who are homeless from downtown because of Operation Rio Grande has made it harder for those who run needle exchanges to find those that need them and vice versa.

Vincent, who started the syringe exchange program for homeless people in downtown about two years ago, took issue with the law enforcement aspect of Operation Rio Grande.

She said the idea of more arrests leading to more people getting help is counterintuitive because more criminal charges lessen the likelihood of someone being hired or being allowed to rent a home.

The reality, she said, is that police came in and “swooped up” a bunch of people, booked them into jail and then let them restart somewhere else.

“What they did is just displace a lot of people. I think Operation Rio Grande is a total failure,” she said. “Did it clean up that area? Yeah. Did it dirty a whole bunch of other areas? It sure did. It just spread it out amongst the cities.”

As homeless people move around the valley, advocates say, it hinders their ability to get them necessary resources.

Before the operation, Vincent said, her team would come in contact with between 1,500 and 2,000 people each month. Thirty days after the police crackdown, that number plunged to 147.

That means some were reusing needles or sharing, instead of getting new ones in the state program. Using a syringe more than once can cause soft tissue damage or tear a vein. It’s also a way to transmit diseases, like HIV and hepatitis B and C.

In the months since, Vincent said, her coalition has adapted. It has set up new syringe-exchange locations in areas where people have relocated, such as on North Temple. Last month, the group had 1,100 encounters with homeless people.

Volunteers of America have also had to make changes, according to spokeswoman Sarah Cavalcanti.

She said outreach volunteers have noticed people now are staying in smaller groups and aren’t staying in one spot for as long.

A matter of motivation

Unified Police Detective Javier Chavez drives his patrol pickup down Main Street in Midvale, pointing out the “no trespassing” signs affixed to telephone poles and fence posts that line an open field of dry grass.

The signs give him probable cause to stop any person he sees walking through or camping in the area.

Chavez and the team he works with specifically focus on the city’s homeless population, primarily patrolling 7200 South, between 400 West and State Street, and the camps that crop up in the area along the Jordan River Parkway. He drives a truck, he says, so when he sees a camp, he and his unit can pack it up. His team found two new ones just that week.

In his work, Chavez says, he sees a difference between someone who is transient and someone who is homeless. It’s all a matter of motivation.

Either you intend to get off the streets or you don’t. A transient, he says, is the latter, and they’re the ones his unit has been working to clear from the city since Operation Rio Grande.

In the past year, Unified Police have arrested 1,438 people who are homeless, according to data provided through a public records request. About 915 of those contacts came in Midvale, home to The Road Home’s family shelter.

As he approached the shelter, Chavez asks, “Do you see any transients?”

Nope. The sidewalks are empty, save for some overgrown bushes.

“This is why it works for us," he says, “because we’re out patrolling.”

If there was someone, he continues, say lying beneath the short purple tree right off 700 West, he would get out of the truck and talk to him. Let him know he can’t be there, but there’s a city park down the street if he wants to use that.

That’s the difference between how his Midvale unit works with people who are homeless and how Salt Lake City police do things, Chavez and his unit leader, Sgt. Jason Norton, say several times that day.

They’re zero-tolerance all the time. If a person panhandles at the Interstate 15 entrance along 7200 South, they stop and talk to them. If they’ve talked to that person before, then they start enforcing the laws.

A few minutes later, Chavez comes across a man and a woman sitting beneath a tree near a dumpster, behind Mi Rico Burrito. He tells them they can’t sit there. The man, Joseph, says he and his girlfriend just sat down.

“There’s a park up the street if you all want to go hang out over there,” Chavez says.

An officer asks why these two are in Midvale anyway. Are they from here?

Not even close.

“I hate Midvale,” Joseph says. “Obviously, you guys are cracking down.”

Moving the needle exponentially

(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, Aug. 14, 2017.

Squires, the public safety commissioner, says Operation Rio Grande led lawmakers and law enforcement to think about the problem of homelessness differently.

“What’s taken place here is we kind of moved the needle exponentially for the state," he said, “and what we’ll be able to accomplish in the future.”

There’s a new recognition, said the DPS boss, that there aren’t enough treatment facilities for those addicted to drugs, that there aren’t enough social workers working with law enforcement.

Looking into the next year, Squires said he has the resources to keep DPS officers patrolling longer than the operation’s end date in August 2019. He acknowledges, however, that it’s infeasible to keep officers out in force to the same level that they have been.

If everything goes as planned, there won’t be a need for that heavy of a police presence, anyway.

“My hope,” he said, “is that with the new facilities that are being constructed, that it will reduce the need for the level of law enforcement presence we have in that area.”

From Salt Lake City police’s perspective, crime has already dropped across the city — and that’s a good thing.

“It’s been a success thus far,” Shearer said. “...But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

For instance, Shearer said there just aren’t enough treatment facilities and beds available for those who need them.

“Until we can get them the help they need, they’re going to be stuck in that cycle,” Shearer said, which is why he noted the “ultimate goal” is to get them those resources.

Not the wild West

Sackett, with Salt Lake City police, spends the next hour or so of his shift driving through parking lots near the North Temple corridor.

That grocery store, the Rancho Market, has issues with people hanging out outside. People like to steal from the Rite Aid in the same shopping center. Most of the drug dealing in the area, he says, comes out of rooms in the motels.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Officer Wyatt Sackett questions a woman known to have engaged in prostitution as she loiters in front of a convenience store along North Temple in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. Members of the west side policing bicycle squad patrol Glendale and Rose Park with an emphasis along North Temple, where they have seen an increase in criminal activity following Operation Rio Grande, now nearing the halfway mark.

He pulls into a 7-Eleven after watching a woman in a pink dress pass the entrance two or three times without going inside.

“You can’t just hang out in front of the store," he says. “That’s a problem.”

He gets her name and checks to see if she has warrants. She does, but they’re minor. He lets her go with a formal warning, since she’s never been caught in front of this store before.

When people linger in front of convenience stores, Sackett says, they might be soliciting drugs or prostitution. He believes that may have been the case with this woman. She has a history of it.

In retrospect, downtown, he says, is no longer the “wild, wild West,” a place where you could arrest a drug dealer “and another one would come in, literally where he was standing.”

And the heightened police presence on North Temple is helping, Sackett says. Drug dealers, for instance, aren’t so brazen, at least.

Yet, with a year left in the operation, questions remain about what the dispersal of folks from downtown will mean.

Earlier in the day, Sackett asked his patrol sergeant the question on many people’s minds: “I mean, don’t you think now that we’re putting pressure on North Temple, it’ll push them farther throughout the city?”

We’ll see.