On August 14, 2017, joint agencies from Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the State of Utah began a collaborative effort in the downtown Salt Lake City neighborhood of Rio Grande, ostensibly to reduce crime. Over a month into implementation of “Operation Rio Grande,” the ACLU of Utah has seen very little to change our original assessment that this law-enforcement-heavy effort is “business as usual.” Now, somewhere between the second and third phase of implementation, this operation appears to rely simply on more of the same ineffective attempts to control the complex social issues of poverty, substance use disorder and mental illness.
You Can’t Arrest Away The Homelessness Problem
Operation Rio Grande remains primarily law-enforcement focused, with multiple law enforcement agencies involved in a dramatic “clean up” of this small area of downtown Salt Lake City, at great expense to taxpayers statewide. Treatment and other supportive services have been secondary considerations in the implementation of this operation. In the rush to launch Operation Rio Grande, several critical constitutional concerns appear to have been either overlooked or disregarded.
Specifically, Operation Rio Grande leaders touted over 1,400 arrests in the area in seven weeks. This influx of defendants and new criminal charges has created significant pressure on the Salt Lake County Legal Defender Association (LDA) causing a spike in caseloads for Salt Lake County public defenders to levels recognized by the American Bar Association as constitutionally problematic.
The Salt Lake County LDA is arguably the best-funded and most professionalized county-based public defender system in the state of Utah (which has consistently rated at the bottom of the barrel, nationally, for funding and oversight of public defense). To cope with the deluge of new cases initiated under this operation, Salt Lake County LDA requested a $368,000 grant from the state’s Indigent Defense Commission. This grant was approved on September 8, 2017, several weeks into Operation Rio Grande, and we anticipate that several more weeks will pass before additional defense attorneys will be hired.
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel has been compromised for hundreds of individuals arrested during these initial weeks of Operation Rio Grande.
We are also concerned that funding appropriated primarily to support struggling, rural county public defender systems has instead been spent defending new prosecutions in Salt Lake County that previously had not been public safety priorities.
We are heartened to see new treatment beds funded by the state, and are supportive of the additional Drug Court established within Salt Lake County. We sincerely hope that both efforts will persist beyond the life of Operation Rio Grande, as the need is great. The agencies engaged in Operation Rio Grande have made good faith efforts to establish treatment options for some individuals arrested as part of the operation. We are troubled, however, that to create space at the Salt Lake County Jail, the in-jail treatment protocol of many incarcerated individuals was disrupted, as participants in the CATS substance abuse treatment program were moved mid-treatment to other county jails with questionable continuity of treatment.
A small portion of Rio Grande Street, about one-half block between homeless service provider buildings, has been closed on a short-term basis for stated public safety purposes. The ID card proposal linked to this street closure continues to cause much concern for the ACLU of Utah. The state’s Department of Workforce Services is currently administering a “voluntary” assessment to individuals who visit the Community Connections Center and those who exit the Salt Lake County Jail after being booked for an Operation Rio Grande-related arrest. Individuals who are administered this assessment sign a consent form, with the understanding that their information will be collected in a state database and that consent will enable them to access various homeless services. At the time of the assessment, a photo is taken for identification and fingerprints are collected.These individuals are told that they will eventually be given an ID card that features their photo and, possibly, their fingerprints.
Residents of nearby neighborhoods have noted that some individuals experiencing homelessness have merely moved from the Rio Grande area and are now camping in surrounding areas. From a constitutional perspective, the diffusion of this vulnerable population is less problematic than the large-scale incarceration, caused by simply relocating this population to the Salt Lake County Jail. Nonetheless, it appears that individuals who are camping in other areas are experiencing similar levels of law enforcement interaction as has been customary in the Rio Grande neighborhood since Operation Rio Grande began. These individuals are also now located farther from services designed to assist them. This distance could become life-threatening as temperatures begin to fall.
We will continue to monitor the developing situation with Operation Rio Grande and review complaints about perceived law enforcement harassment in the Rio Grande area from residents, visitors and even service providers who report being continually asked by officers to justify their presence in the area.