Operation Rio Grande addresses perfect storm of public safety issues

State and local leaders developed a targeted, collaborative program to address homelessness, drug and criminal activity spiraling out of control in Salt Lake City


By Chief Brian Redd, P1 Contributor

On July 25, 2017, concerns regarding public safety in the Rio Grande District of downtown Salt Lake City reached an all-time high after three murders in less than two weeks and ongoing issues related to an active open-air drug market.

The Rio Grande District has seen several challenges in recent years as a result of the opioid crisis; a lack of affordable housing, rehab treatment options and jail capacity; and an increase in crime. Within the District, which covers approximately one square mile, an estimated 2,500 people were living on the streets immediately surrounding a homeless shelter infamously known as “The Block.”

UHP troopers and SLCPD officers on foot patrol in the Rio Grande District conducting enforcement and outreach. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)
UHP troopers and SLCPD officers on foot patrol in the Rio Grande District conducting enforcement and outreach. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)

Due to the concerns, state and local leaders came together in a way not seen since the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics to address a problem spiraling out of control. As a result, "Operation Rio Grande" was launched – an unprecedented partnership between state and local government to restore public order and safety in the Rio Grande District.

What is Operation Rio Grande?

Operation Rio Grande was designed to be a collaborative effort with three phases:

  1. Law enforcement officers would be deployed into the district to restore order;
  2. Increased treatment and services;
  3. A dignity of work phase established to help individuals become self-sufficient.

This approach was intended to restore order and help those in need. Costs would be split between the state, county and city. Law enforcement would receive about a third of the funding.

The Utah Department of Public Safety received new funding from the state legislature to deploy 47 officers from its Utah Highway Patrol and State Bureau of Investigation into the Rio Grande District. Overtime shifts were used to backfill the vacancies left in other areas until additional personnel were hired.

Operation rio grande launches August 2017

Officers and health officials address crime and public health concerns. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)
Officers and health officials address crime and public health concerns. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)

After three weeks of planning by the Department of Public Safety, the Salt Lake City Police Department, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office/Unified Police Department and the Utah Department of Corrections, phase one of the operation was launched.

On August 14, 2017, over 120 officers descended on the Rio Grande District to take back the streets. While doing so, officers also focused on helping individuals connect to services. Social workers from the Salt Lake City Police Department and other state agencies were made available to assist in the early weeks.

Strategies included:

  • Uniformed foot patrol to deter criminal activity.
  • Crime suppression and undercover operations by specialized teams based on intelligence analysis.
  • Co-responder model with officers and social workers to connect people to services.
  • Development of a high-utilizer program with district attorney, legal defense, jail and county treatment providers to help the highest utilizers of the criminal justice system through treatment to reduce recidivism.
  • Law enforcement presence inside the shelter including patron outreach and single-purpose K9 drug searches.
  • Community engagement through outreach meetings and listening sessions.

Law enforcement results

Public safety officials meet with individuals accessing the newly created Safe Space. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)
Public safety officials meet with individuals accessing the newly created Safe Space. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)

As the weeks and months progressed, crime decreased by over 40 percent in the area in 2018. Crime is also down city-wide by 25 percent. Shelter use and meal distribution numbers have remained stable through the operation. The street population has decreased significantly and several individuals have received services, including treatment and employment.

The aesthetics of the area have improved as well. Streets are cleaner with a significant decrease in the number of littered syringes, trash and feces. There has been minimal use of force incidents and complaints against law enforcement. Many using services in the area have expressed appreciation for the much improved circumstances. 

Concerns from other municipalities

A major concern by neighboring cities near Salt Lake City was that the operation would shift the homeless population and drug distribution to other areas. From the start state leaders have been committed to working with local jurisdictions to address concerns and tasked the Department of Public Safety to assist across the state.

The Department of Public Safety has a dedicated Operation Rio Grande narcotics unit to address drug distribution and violent crime, and a separate outreach team with a social worker to address illegal camping and associated activity. While some movement certainly has occurred, requests have been manageable and support has been offered in every case.

Best practices and lessons learned

We learned many lessons over the past year as a result of Operation Rio Grande. They include: 

  • Support from elected leaders is critical to operational success.
  • Foot patrol and community engagement increase police visibility, deter crime and improve community relations. 
  • Our policing approach requires enforcement of all state laws and city ordinances to ensure accountability to the law, while applying discretion, common sense and a compassionate approach to individual circumstances.
  • Information sharing and coordination between police, mental health and service providers can be difficult but is critical to addressing over-utilization of the criminal justice system.
  • Treatment capacity is critical for long-term success.
  • Health department support for on-going clean-up of the area including illegal camps is critical to maintaining order.
  • Outreach to businesses and service providers strengthen the effort.
  • Be transparent and available to the media and public – measure and publish results.
  • Executives and command staff must be visible on the street and engaged.
  • Support to line level officers is critical – address officer wellness, listen and provide the necessary resources.
  • Be agile, communicate with stakeholders regularly and continually adjust to changing conditions. 

Is Operation Rio Grande working?

UHP outreach troopers, DPS victim advocate and DPS social worker offer services to individuals in the Rio Grande District during a community outreach event sponsored by the Pioneer Park Coalition. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)
UHP outreach troopers, DPS victim advocate and DPS social worker offer services to individuals in the Rio Grande District during a community outreach event sponsored by the Pioneer Park Coalition. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)

At the one-year mark of Operation Rio Grande, state and local leaders reconvened to address if Operation Rio Grande is working? In the meeting, officials applauded the effort but acknowledged there is still much to be done.

While treatment capacity has doubled in the state, demand still far exceeds supply. Affordable housing is lacking and Utah real estate prices continue to climb, directly impacting homelessness. We are experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals in the state and continue to see many individuals suffering from mental health and substance use disorders. 

However, the open-air drug market has been dismantled, violence has been reduced significantly and the state continues to improve access to services. Perhaps the best measure of success is in the lives of those who have been helped. One man arrested said, "Nobody likes getting arrested….but the [arrest] gave me a new lease on life."

What does the future hold?

In June 2019, the homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake will be closed and three, smaller resource centers will open in new areas to more effectively service those in need.

Efforts are underway to develop policies for the new resource centers to address needs while keeping safety a top priority. State and local leaders also continue to address the need for increased treatment capacity.

Collaboration and a sustained effort is key

The importance of the collaboration and commitment to a sustained, long-term effort cannot be overstated. The challenges with homelessness, addiction and mental health are not just a law enforcement problem or a Salt Lake City problem but a statewide, multi-disciplinary challenge. Utah will continue to move forward to make life better for all citizens. For more information, visit www.operationriogrande.utah.gov.

Officers from multiple agencies came together for Operation Rio Grande. Pictured right to left: Salt Lake County Sheriff; Salt Lake City Police Department; Utah Department of Public Safety - Utah Highway Patrol, State Bureau of Investigation; Utah Department of Corrections, Adult Probation and Parole; and Unified Police Department. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)
Officers from multiple agencies came together for Operation Rio Grande. Pictured right to left: Salt Lake County Sheriff; Salt Lake City Police Department; Utah Department of Public Safety - Utah Highway Patrol, State Bureau of Investigation; Utah Department of Corrections, Adult Probation and Parole; and Unified Police Department. (Photo/Utah Department of Public Safety)

About the author
Chief Brian Redd currently serves as the director of the Utah Department of Public Safety, State Bureau of Investigation and is part of the leadership team for Operation Rio Grande. Chief Redd has been with the department since 2000 and currently serves on the Utah Crime Victim Council, the Utah Refugee Board of Advisors, the Utah Controlled Substances Advisory Committee, and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Advisory Board. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Business from Utah State University and Master of Public Administration from Brigham Young University

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