Thousands arrested, hundreds in treatment, and dozens in new employment—we take a closer look at the numbers behind the story

In August 2017—three days after the launch of Operation Rio Grande (ORG) to ‘clean up’ the area near 500 West—the ACLU of Utah offered our view: “Operation Rio Grande appears to be, at this point in time, ‘business as usual.’” Noting the heavy focus on law enforcement, we described it as another ineffective attempt to address complex social issues like substance abuse and mental illness “through our broken criminal justice system.” Media reports that week noted that state officials secured 300 jail beds prior to the operation, but only 37 beds for drug treatment. Seeing how ORG was designed as a hammer, we predicted 14 months ago that everyone it touched would become a nail.

A critical appraisal

Operation Rio Grande’s 24-month timer will expire soon after the June 2019 closure of The Road Home shelter and its replacement with three homeless resource centers. With that deadline now ten months away, we believe a critical appraisal is necessary. On October 18, the ACLU of Utah and the Campaign for Smart Justice in Utah will host a panel discussion about ORG at Centro Cívico Mexicano. Sharing their perspectives on the status and future of the operation will be police officers, drug treatment managers, attorneys, and community activists. Lara Jones and Billy Palmer, hosts of KRCL’s RadioActive show, will guide the discussion. A week prior to the event, the ACLU of Utah will release a report to prompt tough questions about the operation’s goals and successes. Our report will analyze three topics—the criminalization of homelessness; the burden of ORG on public defenders and treatment programs; and the erosion of privacy. We preview the first topic below.

By the numbers

The one-year anniversary of ORG this August generated conflicting reviews. Supporters cited safer streets and transformed lives, while detractors say crime is being dispersed and most people can’t access the treatment they need. While state officials were cautious enough to reject a “mission accomplished” banner, they did highlight data they claim shows significant progress. Their approach wasn’t surprising given how statistical evidence has defined the official narrative of ORG. Every month since the fall of 2017, the state has published reports charting the operation’s three phases: 1) Public safety; 2) Treatment access; and 3) Employment training. Details from the August 2018 update are typical: a 42% decline in crime, 324 arrests, 16 people entering treatment programs, and 28 employment plans. ORG’s commitment to transparency is commendable. It is also helpful for identifying trends and problems that are missing or overlooked.

A serious imbalance

Since August 2017, more than 5,024 people have been arrested in the Rio Grande neighborhood, with 80% of them picked up for misdemeanors or warrants. During the same period, social service agencies added 243 new treatment beds while 120 individuals pled into drug courts. The 13-to-1 imbalance is a direct result of the law-enforcement dominance of ORG from its inception. And it isn’t a surprise. The day before the operation began, a well-known elected leader warned that “a short-term gain of a crackdown on drug crime without appropriate treatment and stabilizing resources brings long term-pain.” In contrast to the ORG approach, “Operation Diversion”—a smaller 2016 effort by Salt Lake City and County to reduce crime in the same area—secured 62 treatment beds ahead of time and prioritized access to services over jail. The operational names themselves are telling: “Diversion” was focused on guiding people to alternatives to jail, while “Rio Grande” is trying to pacify an area of the city.

Targeting everyone

Backers of ORG originally claimed its police sweeps would target the “worst of the worst” to drive away the area’s drug trade. But a month into the operation, reporting by the Salt Lake Tribune detailed how only three of the 1,106 ORG-related bookings were first-degree felonies, and only one-fifth had any felony charge at all. Most charges were low-level, drug-related misdemeanors or warrant violations. In response, an ORG leader told the Tribune that they were instead targeting “expendable” individuals at the “bottom” of the local drug trade. Plus, although law enforcement leaders said they wouldn’t arrest individuals for nuisance crimes like jaywalking, littering, or loitering—the ACLU has learned that police frequently rely on those minor infractions to stop, question, and search individuals.

Entirely missing from the official narrative is the impact of these thousands of new arrests, fresh criminal records, and additional stints in jail—mostly due to minor offenses. Undoubtedly, ORG has made it harder for many people to rebuild their lives. Just as we stated in August 2017, the short-term, law enforcement focus of ORG, combined with a shortage of resources for drug and mental health treatment, has hamstrung the operation’s long-term goals.

Read the ACLU’s complete report on Operation Rio Grande, and watch video of the October 18 panel discussion at (Coming soon)

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2018 Fall Newsletter >>