It’s a hot afternoon in the abandoned lower level of what was once Dick’s Sporting Goods at the Gateway Mall in the embattled Rio Grande neighborhood of downtown Salt Lake City. The room is filled with over 350 people, including many member of our Pioneer Park Coalition, anxiously awaiting an update on what has been dubbed “Operation Rio Grande,” a three-phase plan to eliminate lawlessness, assist the homeless, return the streets to a family friendly environment, and return businesses to a state of success.
Lawless activity, centered around the blatant drug trade, has plagued the area for years, with the Salt Lake City police department doing their best to combat the problem. Their best efforts, however, have been little more than a bandaid. Without a bigger plan, each “sweep” or “cleanup” of the area has lasted only a week or two before the bad guys moved right back in. Enter “Operation Rio Grande.”
On Monday, August 14th, Phase One of this 2+ year operation went into effect. Yesterday, August 15th, many member of our Pioneer Park Coalition joined residents, business owners, lawmakers, law enforcement, and other citizens to hear an update from those who have been in the thick of things, especially over the last 17 days. We were able to hear from Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires.
While each spoke individually about specifics to their department, the underlying themes were the same. First, they are in this for the long haul. They are committed. Second, this is an unprecedented operation with commitment and integration on the city, state, county, and private level, with bipartisanship and cooperation. Why do we not see this type of operation very often, they asked. Simple: It’s hard. But they are committed to the operation and bringing the Rio Grande area back. Bringing people, business, and safety back. Third, they need the public’s help. This is a transparent operation and only with help from the citizens of Salt Lake City and surrounding areas can this be a success.
After the individual comments, the panel addressed specific FAQ from members of the audience. We as the Pioneer Park Coalition were pleased with the quality and thoughtfulness of the questions as well as the answers provided. Transparency and honesty prevailed and we feel like this is an amazing first step to an operation that will benefit us all.
Excerpts from the Operation Rio Grande FAQ:
Q: What are the specifics of the three-phase plan?
A: The following graphic was provided and gives a great overview of the plan, which will move quickly. The first phase started Monday August 14th and phase two will begin Friday.
Q: How can citizens report issues and/or perceived threats in their community?
A: For non-emergencies please call 799-3000. Use your camera on your phone. Take photos and send them to Salt Lake City police. As reports come in, a log is created, people are sent to those areas. In an emergency, of course, call 911.
Q: How will the physical clean-up of the Rio Grande area work?
A: A daily schedule of street-sweeping and cleanup will begin August 16th and continue indefinitely. As a “spidering” effect continues to move the homeless population to different areas and you feel cleanup is needed, please contact the SLC County Health Department.
Q: What is happening to the homeless people’s belongings if they’re arrested?
A: The Salt Lake Police Department is committed to treating every individual equally, including our homeless population. Items are inventoried and held until they can be returned to the owner. Additional personnel have been brought in to help with this task.
Q: What can individuals do to help?
A: Learn about the programs that are available and make donations to support these programs. Do not give to panhandlers, that is one of the biggest problems that we have. It is now illegal to give (transact) with panhandlers in major thoroughfares. It doesn’t help people and is dangerous! Instead, give through and volunteer through SLCHOST.org.
Q: What are we doing to ensure the civil liberties of these people are protected?
A: ACLU associates are working closely with our government leaders. The Operation is very transparent. We are all working to ensure that those who are needing help are receiving the help they need and by not being forced to associate with those who are there for the wrong reasons.
Q: How has the homeless population responded to law enforcement being in the field?
A: As expected, responses have been mixed. Those with something to hide, who want to continue to live unlawfully without repercussions are obviously agitated. Others, those who have lived in fear and are victims of those who prey on the less fortunate, have expressed gratitude to law enforcement and others involved. The goal is that this gratitude will prevail and that we can feel that gratitude for years to come.
Q: What is the ongoing police presence going to be?
A: Once order is restored, we anticipated it will take much less much less man power to maintain the safety of the area.
Q: Employers have expressed concern as to how they can keep their employees safe as they come to work.
A: One of the greatest resources are the bicycle cops. Call 799-DNTN, and these police officers can address the concerns on a one on one basis.
The meeting ended with Mayor McAdams reiterating the end goal. This is a long haul operation. We must BREAK THE CYCLE! The criminals will serve their time and leave the jail with hope. Those who need treatment will receive it and leave without debilitating addiction. These people can regain their dignity, receive stable and affordable housing, obtain and retain jobs. And BREAK THE CYCLE. The homeless population is invited to come back to the area to receive services. It is safe for you here. A huge thank you from us at PPC to all those who are sacrificing and working to make this dream a reality.
That is what this is all about, folks. We at the Pioneer Park Coalition are excited and committed to being a large part of the solution in Operation Rio Grande. Will you join us?