ACLU says Operation Rio Grande was ‘designed as a hammer,’ and arrest figures show it

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grande homeless area in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 14, 2017.

Civil liberties advocates are faulting Operation Rio Grande for an overemphasis on policing Salt Lake City’s homeless population, reporting the initiative has so far yielded about 13 arrests for every new treatment program placement.

When Operation Rio Grande launched last August, its creators said they were seeking to reduce lawlessness around the city’s homeless shelter through a two-year effort that would target the “worst of the worst” for arrest and expand treatment options and job training for others. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah says many minor offenders are also getting caught in the law enforcement net.

“Being homeless is not a crime, yet thousands of individuals living in or frequenting the Rio Grande neighborhood were detained, jailed and released with no additional help and the added burden of warrants, fines and a criminal record,” the ACLU wrote in an eight-page report released Tuesday.

Since Operation Rio Grande’s launch in August 2017, police have made more than 5,000 arrests as part of the initiative, more than three-quarters of them for misdemeanors or active warrants. That figure dwarfs the number of new beds added to local social service agencies (243) and the number of people who have pleaded into drug court (120) during the operation’s first year, the report states.

Jason Stevenson, an ACLU spokesman, said the imbalance exists because Operation Rio Grande was “designed as a hammer” and has had a law-and-order emphasis since its inception. Granted, he said, it’s easier to send squad cars to the Rio Grande neighborhood than to create new treatment beds. But it’s not the most efficient tactic in the long term, he said.

“It’s not necessarily cheaper to focus on law enforcement, but that machine is much easier to ramp up than the treatment side,” he said.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, one of the main architects of Operation Rio Grande, said he was disappointed by the ACLU report and felt it mischaracterized the operation as a heavy-handed effort. It has helped numerous people get back on their feet, he said.

“Not only am I proud of the work that people have done, I’m happy for and inspired for the people who have been able to turn their lives around,” he said.

Operation Rio Grande’s three-pronged plan began with law enforcement to address crime around the city’s homeless shelter, said Nate McDonald, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“We definitely knew it could not just be about law enforcement, but there was a need to get things going right away,” he said.

The operation’s second and third phases aim to help people access mental-health services, recover from addiction and find jobs.

Officials involved in Operation Rio Grande have pointed to sinking crime statistics as evidence of success. Crimes decreased by 26 percent across the city in the operation’s first year, with the biggest drop documented in the Rio Grande area.

Hughes noted that the neighborhood drew national attention in the summer of 2017 after a Las Vegas minor league baseball player was attacked in broad daylight by a homeless Salt Lake City man wielding a tire iron.

“We were making USA TODAY in terms of urban chaos going on,” Hughes, R-Draper, said.

Because of the past year’s work, people now feel secure entering the Rio Grande area to seek help from service providers, he added.

However, the ACLU report states that officials often improperly conflate issues of homelessness and crime, a symptom of the law enforcement-heavy approach that the group says has underpinned Operation Rio Grande.

Many of the individuals who have landed in jail have been released because of space shortages, The Salt Lake Tribune has reported. Often, this brush with the justice system serves only to lengthen people’s criminal records and make it more difficult for them to find secure housing and permanent employment, Stevenson said.

“A lot of people are being arrested, but it’s a revolving door,” he said. “They’re not getting the help they need.”

But McDonald said an arrest can steer people into treatment programs and divert them into drug court. On Wednesday, Salt Lake County officials will hold a graduation ceremony for the first batch of participants in its Operation Rio Grande drug court program.

Many of the people who end up in treatment at First Step House come by way of the criminal justice system, said Shawn McMillen, the organization’s executive director. The nonprofit provides residential and outpatient treatment services for low-income men, and McMillen said quite a few clients have been referred through Operation Rio Grande.

He’s witnessed program participants express gratitude for their arrests, which gave them a chance to detox in jail and pursue recovery.

“You see men cry out of gratitude,” he said. “So I get that perhaps the number of arrests was beyond the capacity of the system, but I also know that there’s another side to the story.”

Matt Melville, homeless services director for Catholic Community Services, said he does wish that treatment beds had come online sooner through Operation Rio Grande. The spate of arrests is also problematic for his nonprofit, as it seeks to get people off the streets, he said.

“Anytime there’s more barriers being put up to get people to employment or housing, it’s concerning for us,” he said.

He recognizes the Rio Grande neighborhood had hit a crisis when the operation started; drug dealing and violence had become such a problem that some of his volunteers no longer felt safe enough to show up, he said.

“There were definitely some predators that were down here and a heavy, heavy drug trade,” he said.

The two-year operation precedes the expected 2019 closure of The Road Home shelter and the planned opening of three smaller shelters. State, county and city leaders have partnered on the project, which carries an estimated $67 million price tag — some of that represents reallocated resources, and about $15 million to $20 million of the total is new spending, McDonald said.

Stevenson said his group’s goal is to start a conversation about Operation Rio Grande so its leaders can adjust the effort during its final months.

“We believe the data we’ve analyzed shows we’re heading in the wrong direction, but there is still time to change course,” he said.

The organization is hosting a panel discussion on Operation Rio Grande at Centro Cívico Mexicano Thursday evening, with participation from service providers, a defense attorney and the deputy chief for the Salt Lake City Police Department.