Who is being arrested in Operation Rio Grande? Many have felonies or lengthy records, though few appear to be the promised ‘worst of the worst’

(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.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and House Speaker Greg Hughes have used the phrase “worst of the worst” to describe people arrested during Operation Rio Grande, portraying them as wolves who prey upon the homeless near Salt Lake City‘s downtown shelter.

But records that The Salt Lake Tribune requested from the Salt Lake County jail show only a handful of those arrested in the operation’s first month are the “dangerous criminals” sometimes described to justify the $67 million crackdown, though the data support officials’ assertion that few have been booked for public nuisance crimes like jaywalking, intoxication or camping.

Of 1,106 bookings as of Sept. 13, only three involved new first-degree felony charges, the most serious in Utah, while one 37-year-old man was booked five times on charges like public intoxication, open container, disorderly conduct and providing false information to police.

A total of 222 bookings involved some level of felony charge, though. And many offenders were picked up for multiple violations, including one 48-year-old man who was booked on 50 charges — mostly for drug possession.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires said Thursday that law enforcement had never expected, early on, to handcuff high-level drug dealers. Rather, they’ve targeted the “expendable” people at the bottom of the cartel organizational chart.

And the strategy has worked, he said.

“We feel like we have significantly disrupted the drug activity that‘s taking place in the area,” Squires said, adding they’ve done so without causing a lasting dip in the use of homeless services.

Drug users have told The Salt Lake Tribune they can still find their fix — at light rail stops to the south, North Temple motels or even in the Rio Grande neighborhood — but that it has become more difficult. Salt Lake City police, on the hunt for the same dealers, have found the going tough, too.

Operation Rio Grande leaders — including state, city and county officials — have emphasized that they don’t intend to police their way out of what is fundamentally a health care and housing problem. But their assurances, even with the promise of up to 240 new behavioral treatment beds by 2018, haven’t quieted all of their critics. 

Eric Tars, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, based in Washington, D.C., said that for the cost to have a state helicopter circle the shelter area for days, dozens of homeless people might have obtained housing. Instead, additional criminal charges will make it harder for them to ever leave the streets.

“Every piece of evidence-based research that we have says that the best, most cost-effective way of dealing with this would be to make sure that homeless people can get off the streets into housing, with mental health and addiction treatment, if needed,” he said.

Salt Lake City police, state troopers and officers from the Unified Police Department were among those to descend on the shelter area Aug. 14 as part of ramped up law enforcement that is expected to last two years, costing $19 million. Internal emails exchanged last month by officials at the Department of Corrections indicate that overtime pay for probation officers, alone, was expected to total $575,000 for the first 90 days.

Tars met Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams in March, and he said McAdams’ email to Cox on the eve of Operation Rio Grande expressed many of his own organization’s fears about attempts to reduce homelessness and its associated problems through blunt force.

In the four-page email — which Tars had read in a previous Tribune report — McAdams told Cox he worried that “the plan is not to be strategic, but to simply arrest everyone in sight who is engaged in misdemeanor activity.” McAdams wrote later that day to say his concerns had been alleviated at an impromptu meeting with Cox and his staff, and he hasn‘t publicly questioned the effort.

Officials have highlighted 37 new treatment beds and an employment component being led by Utah Jazz President Steve Starks, and they’ve characterized Operation Rio Grande as a humane effort above all else.

But Tars echoed the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which said in a statement that Operation Rio Grande has distinguished itself from last fall’s smaller-scale Operation Diversion in that it launched before new treatment beds were available.

Squires said that decision was left to him. He’s a “firm believer that the answer to most of the challenges and problems in that community [are] not solved through arrests and jail,” he said, but a recent series of violent crimes and a pervading sense of escalating lawlessness persuaded him to move fast.

“We could have taken months to get things lined up for treatment,” he said. “I felt very strongly that there was an immediate need to go in and restore order.”

One of the men accused of a first-degree felony allegedly stole a phone from a man at knifepoint. Another fled after refusing to provide his identity, and officers found 20 balloons to 30 balloons of heroin in his vehicle. Two men were booked on 13 second- and third-degree felonies each.

On the flip side, 321 bookings involved misdemeanor warrants alone, of which 171 resulted in a release from jail due to overcrowding. In addition to jail bookings, about 850 citations had been issued as of Sept. 11, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Squires said there was no pressure on officers to fill any kind of quota, nor was there a bar set for what level of crimes they should enforce: “We believe in officers having discretion and being able to do what we call compassionate policing.”

To former Salt Lake City police Chief Chris Burbank, who served for nearly nine years until his forced retirement in 2015, Operation Rio Grande resembles the “stop-and-frisk” approach that civil rights activists have decried in New York. In a vain pursuit of people who possess large quantities of drugs, Burbank said, officers are piling on those who commit relatively minor offenses.

“I‘m extremely disappointed in where this is going,” said Burbank, who is now the director of law enforcement engagement for the Center for Policing Equity. “Everybody who’s showing up down there looks like they’re going into Kuwait or Afghanistan. It’s just ridiculous. ... There’s very few serious offenders being cited.”

Tars likened it to Los Angeles’ effort to clean up Skid Row in the early 2000s by enforcing anticamping ordinances, which led to an ACLU lawsuit that was successful in a federal appeals court. Utah received national attention for its progressive housing-first initiatives to reduce chronic homelessness, he said, “but it‘s operations like this that make it very difficult for us to say, ‘Utah and Salt Lake City is a model that everybody should be following.’ This is a step in exactly the wrong direction.”

Few offenders have been booked solely on the so-called quality-of-life offenses that organizations like Tars’ say criminalize homelessness. Still, Utah leaders contemplated a stricter camping ordinance as they hashed out the plan for Operation Rio Grande in 2½ weeks following a summit held in July at the request of Gov. Gary Herbert.

Officials have argued they can’t reasonably enforce camping ordinances until they create an alternate “safe space” for people to go to, and they have tried to create such a space by closing the stretch of Rio Grande Street that fronts the shelter.

There’s little jail space for a camping crackdown, anyway.

County jail data show that bookings in August came at a rate of 45 per day. Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook wrote in an Aug. 23 internal email, “Aren‘t these arrest numbers much higher and higher for a longer period of time than projected?” Bookings have slowed to 22 per day in September, as the level of severity required to displace another inmate has increased.

All told, 70 percent of those arrested in Operation Rio Grande had been released as of Sept. 13. Fifty-five percent of those were let out the same day they were booked, while another 14 percent were released on the next day. Nobody with a first- or second-degree felony had been released due to overcrowding as of Sept. 6, but there were 28 times that people had been released on third-degree felonies. One man was released the same day on seven third-degree felony charges.

Squires said law enforcement will draw down as needed, now that order has been restored in the Rio Grande neighborhood — home to The Gateway shopping mall, Pioneer Park, and condos and apartments, as well as the valley’s largest concentration of homeless services.

Although Burbank works on Main Street and said homeless people tell him “how horrible it is” being swarmed by police, Squires said his officers often are thanked for improving the neighborhood.

Squires said “excellent” intelligence gathered in the operation also has led to more than a half-dozen raids on residences and motels in other areas. As far north as Ogden, for example, officers found two firearms and a half-pound of heroin.