ACLU says Operation Rio Grande is 'business as usual' and, so far, prioritizes jail over treatment

Law enforcement have cleared out drug dealers near Salt Lake City shelter, but with treatment phase yet to begin, civil-rights advocates say they’re not sold yet.

(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 never received the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah’s stamp of approval and, after three days, looks to be ”business as usual,” according to a three-page statement released Wednesday by the civil-rights organization.

“In its current phase, this operation appears to rely on simply more of the same ineffective attempts to control the complex social issues of poverty, substance use disorder and mental illness through the same traditional mechanisms of our broken criminal justice system,” the statement read.

Nobody had suggested the ACLU was fully on board with the two-year plan to reduce lawlessness around Salt Lake City’s downtown shelter, but when asked about the effort’s constitutional soundness, leaders had repeatedly mentioned the inclusion of ACLU representatives in the planning process.

In a Tuesday public forum at The Gateway mall, to the north of the shelter, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said that when Gov. Gary Herbert made Cox his ”point person” for Operation Rio Grande, ”one of the very first things I did was schedule a meeting with the ACLU.”

“They gave us many suggestions,” Cox said. ”We‘ve implemented some of those. ... This is important. If we do this the wrong way, that’s how it fails. We have to do it the right way, and that is to take care of people’s civil liberties.”

In Wednesday’s statement, the ACLU of Utah expressed appreciation that officials have sought its feedback, but clarified that it ”was not part of any official planning process” and ”did not ’sanction’ or ’approve’ any aspects.”

An ACLU spokesperson declined additional comment. Cox and House Speaker Greg Hughes — who has also met with ACLU representatives — did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Wednesday evening. The Salt Lake Tribune will update this story if more information becomes available.

It was not, by other measures, “business as usual” in the Rio Grande neighborhood Wednesday.

In an area known as ”The Block,” at the perimeter of the 210 S. Rio Grande St. homeless shelter, law enforcement vehicles at one point seemed to outnumber people.

Two weeks prior, a Tribune reporter observed a half-dozen injections of heroin on a brisk walk down 500 West, between 200 South and 400 South. He also was asked if he was “looking,” or wanted ”black or white” — meaning heroin or crack cocaine.

One man selling rolled cigarettes Wednesday at the southeast corner of 200 South and 500 West, the onetime epicenter of the capital city’s dose-level drug trade, said some wrongdoing might have moved inside the shelter at night.

Another jittery man said there were only two “Hondurans” (Hispanic people selling drugs are generally assumed by area residents to be Honduran) working the area at midday. 

Officials announced at the state Capitol on Wednesday that 71 arrests were made in the second 24-hour period of the operation, bringing the total to 158 over two days. Ten people were booked on felonies, 71 were on outstanding warrants, 55 on a combination of outstanding warrants and new charges, and 22 on new charges alone.

Those who were charged with Class A misdemeanors and felonies were held at the Salt Lake County jail, in beds that were frantically freed up in the days before the operation, while those with Class B and C misdemeanors were booked and released.

The ACLU wrote that this operation has been different from smaller-scale sweeps last fall, dubbed Operation Diversion, in which low-level offenders were given a choice between jail and treatment.

Then, new treatment beds had been lined up so that those offenders could bypass monthslong waiting lists for other publicly funded beds.

Officials have said that 37 new treatment beds will come online for Operation Rio Grande within three weeks, with as many as 200 funded by spring, when the state anticipates that President Donald Trump’s administration will have granted a $100 million Medicaid waiver.

But the ACLU suggested that leaders laid bare their priorities by first securing the jail beds: ”We understand that diversion options in the form of treatment opportunities may be forthcoming. At the moment, however, Operation Rio Grande does not appear to provide any substantive diversion options.”

Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown noted Wednesday that in the second 24-hour period of the operation, a team that includes eight city social workers and 10 more provided by the state had connected people with services at a rate that outpaced arrests.

Civil liberty groups have frequently clashed with cities over homeless-related crackdowns — particularly when they involve camping and loitering ordinances. Federal courts have ruled that such ordinances are cruel and unusual, or otherwise unconstitutional, unless offenders have another safe place to go.

Salt Lake City already has citywide camping and loitering bans, but officials have said that enforcement of those bans isn’t a priority at this juncture. The ACLU said it hopes that it won’t become one, either.

The ACLU of Utah last summer issued a statement critical of related policy requests made by a group of area residents and business leaders known as the Pioneer Park Coalition, pointing to constitutional challenges in other cities, including Boise, Idaho, and Grand Junction, Colo.

Wrote the ACLU on Wednesday: ”[W]e cannot confirm with confidence that individuals will not be arrested or pushed out of the area simply for nuisance offenses such as camping, loitering and public intoxication.”

It added that an Operation Rio Grande proposal to issue state identification cards that would become a condition of receiving area homeless services is ”too vaguely defined for us to provide meaningful assessment at this time.”