The plan called for a sustained law enforcement presence in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood, where drug dealing was running amok.

Offenders would be booked into jail (there would be more jail beds), and many would receive treatment (there would be dedicated treatment beds, too) administered by a new specialty drug court.

Sound a little like Operation Rio Grande?

In fact, Salt Lake County made the pitch earlier this year to a state committee that doled out $6 million in Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) grant funds, and it fell flat when weighed against needs elsewhere in the state.

But a much-publicized two-year crackdown on crime near the 210 S. Rio Grande St. shelter includes a treatment phase that has been copycatted from the county’s dust-binned blueprints — bringing online not only a new drug court, but up to 241 treatment beds, according to a Tuesday announcement.

House Speaker and Operation Rio Grande engineer Greg Hughes smiled sheepishly when asked after Tuesday’s news conference about the inspiration for the newly unveiled behavioral health components. His own wife has given him grief about stealing thunder from Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, he said.

“Poor Ben,” Hughes said she told him. ”This is his plan.”

Noella Sudbury, who had petitioned the state JRI committee as Salt Lake County’s Criminal Justice Advisory Council coordinator, acknowledged after an earlier hat tip from McAdams that it’s been an emotional couple of months, watching the plan’s death and rebirth.

But “a lot of that thought and work informed what we’re rolling out now, and I’m not sure we could get it up and running as quickly as we have, not having gone through that experience and having all that work to draw from,” Sudbury said.

The drug court and 61 new treatment beds — including 51 at Odyssey House, which hosted Tuesday’s announcement — are expected in September. Relaxed state capacity guidelines will also allow Volunteers of America Utah to serve 15 more people at its downtown detox facility.

Odyssey House and First Step House may soon receive the green light for 180 additional treatment beds, though the Dec. 15 goal date printed on an Operation Rio Grande handout appears to be a best-case scenario.

Odyssey House would need to renovate its existing facilities to add 100 new beds. Said CEO Adam Cohen: ”It is a challenge, and we’re trying to be as agile as possible to make sure that we respond effectively to the community’s needs.”

First Step House aims to open an 80-bed facility in Salt Lake County by early 2018, but to do so by mid-December would be ”really, really tough,” said Executive Director Shawn McMillen, adding that there’s a shortage of qualified personnel in the field and that ”I can’t stretch the existing staff any further than we already are.”

McAdams and Salt Lake County Director of Behavioral Health Tim Whalen, however, ”really deserve a pat on the back,” McMillen said. ”They’ve been singing to the choir with us for a long time, and they’ve been doing everything they can to make access to treatment happen.”

Those 180 beds’ existence is contingent on the federal government’s approval of the state’s Medicaid expansion request, which would target those who are homeless and need substance abuse or mental health treatment.

Hughes again spoke positively about the state’s expansion prospects Tuesday. Standing beside him was its sponsor Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who Hughes said had recently dogged Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price at a national legislative conference. Pamela Atkinson, a longtime advocate for homeless people, also received assurances from federal officials, Hughes said.

“They have told her — and who would ever lie to Pamela? Nobody, or else, you know where they‘re going, right? They’ve told her that this is of the highest priority,” Hughes said. “So we are very optimistic about those waivers coming.”

The operation-specific drug court would bolster a Salt Lake County system that is in its 22nd year of treating nonviolent offenders instead of jailing them.

Drug court participants plead guilty on a condition: Complete a program of treatment, counseling and case management, and the conviction won’t stick.

The county last year reported that drug court services add up to about one-fourth of what it would cost to incarcerate those participants, saving taxpayers about $500,000 each month.

Michael Mulkern, 35, was sentenced by the county’s Family Dependency Drug Court earlier this year after trying to steal from a downtown department store. He attended Tuesday’s news conference after recently moving from Odyssey House into transitional housing, and after regaining custody of his three children.

“The good thing about drug court is it offers structure,” Mulkern said, ”and it offers another person on my team: another advocate, another support system.”

The county earlier this year proposed the new drug court as a way to improve on a county and Salt Lake City collaboration last fall, a smaller-scale version of Operation Rio Grande that was dubbed Operation Diversion.

Then, low-level offenders were given a choice between treatment and jail, and many who chose treatment simply walked out without structure or consequence — and right back to the easy fixes on “The Block” if they desired them.

McAdams said Tuesday that in the Rio Grande court, ”for the first time, clients will be screened for the program while still in jail, and in under two weeks, they will be connected to a structured, carefully monitored treatment program.”

Staffing details weren’t available Tuesday, but the county’s JRI proposal for the “Diversion Court” included a 3rd District Judge, a prosecutor, a public defender, two licensed social workers, an in-court therapist, two county case managers and two Unified Police Department detectives.

The county figured then that its new court would cost $4.8 million in its first two years, though it also hoped to use some JRI funds to keep open 63 Operation Diversion treatment beds that are funded through the end of 2017 by the city and county. Sudbury has previously said that those 63 beds cost about $2.6 million per year.


A planned two-year crackdown on lawlessness around Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless shelter had resulted in 423 total arrests as of 6 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Department of Public Safety. Here’s the breakdown of those arrests, as well as social worker statistics provided earlier Tuesday by Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown:








Later Tuesday, the group Utah Against Police Brutality rallied several dozen people near 500 West and 300 South, calling for an end to Operation Rio Grande. A statement from the group labeled the crackdown as “police brutality,” adding that it was not about tamping down crime and drug use — but rather political optics and “appeasing big business and developers” who see potential in the area.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which has voiced its criticism of the operation in recent days, was tweeting from the rally. “Homeless rights are human rights,” the organization wrote. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski responded on Twitter, saying “everyone has a right to safety,” and the police are “focused on making the area safe for those in need of help and hope.”

Financial details about Operation Rio Grande are expected later this week, after a Wednesday meeting between stakeholders, but McAdams allowed Tuesday that “the assurances we‘ve had to give all of these [treatment] providers is that this is a funding commitment of no less than two to three years.”

“They can’t make this type of investment and only have three months of services,” he said. “It will bankrupt a provider.”

Like Mulkern, Odyssey House resident Rachael Rubin, 37, waited at Tuesday's news conference to volunteer a testimonial, having obtained her bed through funds from Operation Diversion.

Many among the 420-plus booked by law enforcement during Operation Rio Grande sweeps will not change for the better, she said, but ”if they could just get a handful of people out of there that end up with a good story, that’s considered a success.”

She gained the strength to leave a toxic relationship, has a lead on an apartment and housing, and recently saw her two out-of-state teenagers for the first time in years.

They told her something she’s ”never, ever heard” from them before, she said.

They were proud of her. 

— Reporter Luke Ramseth contributed to this story.