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Dave and Dujanovic: ACLU releases critical report on Operation Rio Grande

In their latest report, the ACLU argues Operation Rio Grande created more problems than it solved. (Photo: Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — It has been two years since Operation Rio Grande began. The goal was helping to rid the neighborhoods around Salt Lake City homeless shelters of crime.

The Salt Lake City police say the operation to re-house people experiencing homelessness was a success. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah (ACLU) says the police were unnecessarily picking on the homeless to boost an image that the operation was successful.

ACLU of Utah report critical of police tactics

On Monday the ACLU of Utah released the outline of a report titled “Endgame for Operation Rio Grande.”  In the report, they called Salt Lake City’s approach to solving the problems of crime and homelessness a “flawed model.”

Jason Stevenson and Jason Goth from the ACLU of Utah joined KSLNewsRadio’s Dave and Dujanovic on Tuesday to talk about their new report.  They said they don’t think the original intention of Operation Rio Grande was to target the homeless for low-level crimes. But, they say that’s what it became.

“When you look at the data, they (Salt Lake City police) said they’re going to go after the worst of the worst,” Stevenson said,  “but, in the first 35 days of Operation Rio Grande, you had about 1,200 arrests.  About 70% of them were for misdemeanors and infractions and warrants. So they did pick up some felons, but a lot of the folks were picked up for lower-level crimes.”

Insufficient infrastructure

The ACLU of Utah says Salt Lake City police did not provide sufficient infrastructure to accommodate the increased level of arrests that came from Operation Rio Grande.

As a result, Goth says, some people never received their promised treatment.

“That’s a problem,” Goth says. “And that’s something that we’re seeing in the courts. And so if you go to Justice Court and watch what happens, that becomes a revolving door, you start seeing the same faces over and over again.”

Proponent disagrees with “targeting” charge

Former Speak of the Utah House of Representatives, Greg Hughes, led the charge to clean up crime and camping in Utah in 2017. He says of Operation Rio Grande that police did not target the homeless population for minor crimes. “It’s false,” he said.

“This has been community outreach and I’m very proud of our [Utah] Highway Patrol and our local law enforcement who’s really engaged in that area.

“Show me the metropolitan area in this country where we’re seeing lawlessness addressed like we are here in Salt Lake and in Utah. And show me, where the ACLU is concerned, are being considered or implemented the way they want it and it’s working. I see it nowhere in the country,” Hughes said.

Pre-Operation Rio Grand environment

Salt Lake City Chief of Police Mike Brown says it’s important to understand the context of crime in Salt Lake’s downtown area before Operation Rio Grande began.

“I’ve said this before [Salt Lake City] was the Amsterdam of the country,” Brown said.

“Colorado had legalized marijuana, by default Salt Lake City had legalized everything because there were no consequences for bad behavior.”

Brown says he doesn’t think his officers were targeting the homeless either.

“We knew that we could never rest our way out of it,” he told KSL Newsradio’s Dave and Dujanovic on Tuesday.

“The most expensive, least effective treatment in the world is taking somebody to jail and incarcerating them.”

Brown says that progress has been slow, but overall it has been a success and that they’ve learned a lot.

You can hear the rest of the conversation that Dave and Debbie had in the podcast below.