One of the missing pieces leaders have been awaiting to launch an all-hands-on-deck assault on lawlessness in downtown Salt Lake City is now in place: extra jail beds to free up space in the crowded Salt Lake County jail.
Utah County has agreed to house 128 Salt Lake County inmates — beds freed up when the former ended its federal contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The contract was agreed to just hours before the Salt Lake County Council this week approved funding it through the end of the year, said Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Pam Lofgreen, who oversees the Salt Lake County jail. Lofgreen’s comments made clear efforts to quickly open jail beds are related to the impending law-enforcement action dubbed “Operation Rio Grande.”
“To address the crisis needs in the Rio Grande area, I have been asked to find and fill 300 beds immediately,” Lofgreen told members of the County Council on Tuesday.
She also said if there wasn’t space in other counties for inmates from Salt Lake, the state Department of Corrections would have intervened by moving its inmates out of county jails to free up space. Lofgreen said she had a Friday deadline to finalize the deal with Utah County before the Department of Corrections stepped in.
The statements gave a rare peek into the secretive preparations being made under supervision of state, county and city leaders. Those involved in discussions inside the so-called “war room” across the street from the downtown homeless shelter and the open drug dealing outside, twice declined to provide any details in public meetings this week.
“For the security of the officers and many of the people involved, we’re not going to go into detail on that today,” County Mayor Ben McAdams told a group, including law-enforcement representatives, that had expected an update Wednesday on the upcoming crackdown.
Without discussing details, McAdams later said talks were ongoing but that he expected action was on the way.
“It is important to me that we move fast and we can’t continue to look the other way on this,” McAdams told The Tribune. “We have to act to address the anarchy we see on Rio Grande.”
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is Gov. Gary Herbert’s “point person” on the issue, also didn’t discuss details with an assembled group working on homelessness services on Tuesday, though some in attendance at both meetings were waiting for information.
“I was hoping to get a bit more information because we haven’t heard much about the criminal aspect of what’s going to be planned,” said Matt Melville, director of homeless services for Catholic Community Services (CCS).
CCS operates the Weigand Homeless Resouce Center and St. Vincent de Paul dining hall downtown, and Melville said he was concerned homeless clients would be affected.
“It sounds like they’ve got stuff planned and they’re going to roll things out,” Melville said. “It’s definitely going to impact our services when they do that [and] we just kind of want to be prepared for what happens when it does.”
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who called for immediate action in Rio Grande following recent high-profile crimes in the district, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the ongoing discussions this week.
Christina Judd, spokeswoman for Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, said only that talks were collaborative and ongoing. She pointed to the previously announced addition of patrols in the area following a spate of recent homicides.
While the law-enforcement piece of any upcoming action in Rio Grande is drawing the most attention and speculation, it’s unclear whether the operation will also include treatment for anyone taken to jail that is addicted or has mental-health issues.
The county is the primary health-services provider in the valley, and the city primarily funds law enforcement. Officials from both governments now say treatment options – where criminals can choose between jail and residential treatment that possibly leads to sobriety – are critical to success in improving Rio Grande.
“Ultimately, you can do an operation any day of the week, but when you don’t have a follow-on strategy it’s a disservice to spend the time and effort doing that operation,” Judd said. “So the follow-on strategies with beds and diversionary options are a huge piece of this.”
County staff frequently say there aren’t enough treatment beds available and money is insufficient to quickly open more.
“There are people on the streets who need to be incarcerated, and people on the streets who need to be in treatment,” McAdams said. “With new resources and new levels of political commitment from the Legislature and the governor, hopefully we can get funding for treatment and funding for incarceration.”
Correction: Aug. 9, 6:14 p.m. An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Salt Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Chief Pam Lofgreen.