It could take 2 years for Operation Rio Grande to truly eliminate crime — and that’ll require more state funding

Legislators hear update on plans, told sustained efforts are needed to stop crime around the homeless shelter and battle its spread.<br>

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Operation Rio Grande, targeting crime among the homeless and providing treatment and jobs to others, may last nearly two years if enough funding is found, lawmakers were told Wednesday.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires updated lawmakers Wednesday about Operation Rio Grande — and ballyhooed successes so far — in an effort to prime them for yet-to-come funding requests.

Squires said the operation, which began last week, had led to 491 arrests including more than 50 felonies — mostly targeting drug trafficking.

He said most drug dealers and other criminals have fled the area, but some figure “they would just wait us out because there have been some cycles before” when increased enforcement pulled back after a week or so.

No such ebb will happen this time, Squires said, and extra officers are in the Rio Grande area around the clock every day.

“Any time there is a chance someone is trying to come in and establish [criminal activity] again [in Rio Grande], they are arrested immediately,” Squires said.

“For far too long, we had a geographic area in this state where there were zero consequences for anything. That‘s not dignity. That’s not helping people.”<br>— Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox<br>

Hughes said such efforts may last for 21 to 22 months to truly eliminate crime there.

The Road Home, an 1,100-bed shelter in the neighborhood is slated to be shuttered by July 2019, in conjunction with the opening of three smaller homeless resource centers at scattered locations in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake.

Squires said officials knew that the sustained crackdown would lead criminals to flee to other areas. But Operation Rio Grande will expand to those as well when problems are identified, “and we will come up with an action plan on how to deal with it” in each area.

Hughes said criminal activity had hindered helping the homeless.

“People who needed help were afraid to be in that area,” worrying to stay in shelters because they would be robbed or would relapse into easily available drugs, he said. Now that they feel safer, he said officials have seen an increase in the truly needy who are seeking help.

Additionally, he said, “With the criminals running away, there are a lot of sobering moments…. People are walking in on their own and asking for treatment … because their supply line is changing.” With such treatment, he said true long-term change is possible.

Cox said, “For far too long, we had a geographic area in this state where there were zero consequences for anything. That’s not dignity. That’s not helping people.”

Hughes said the efforts are not just helping the homeless. He said that before the operation began, the new owners of The Gateway shopping mall told him “they were not confident they could be around in two years…. They were very, very concerned about their future prospects.”

Hughes said that is changing now as crime leaves. He added that the Rio Grande area also is home to the city’s major transit hub for rail and buses — which normally would attract surrounding development, but crime has scared it away. He envisions that changing.

Hughes did not give details about how much the extra law enforcement and treatment will cost, but said officials should have proposals soon.

“Everybody has to do their part.”<br>— House Speaker Greg Hughes<br>

He added that the state will seek to help fund the operation by matching money put up by Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City and others — and they are discussing costs item by item.

“Those conversations are still happening,” he said. “Everybody has to do their part.”

Hughes cautioned that the state is “not an open vault for this whole thing to happen, and we have to convey this to our partners that everybody has to do their part” to cover two years’ worth of costs “and ensure it doesn’t fizzle out.”