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Utah Legislators Discuss Policing Challenges For Operation Rio Grande

Utah Highway Patrol Troopers in Salt Lake's Rio Grande neighborhood in 2018.
Whittney Evans
Utah Highway Patrol Troopers in Salt Lake's Rio Grande neighborhood in 2018.

The state of Utah, Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City launched Operation Rio Grande as an effort to address homelessness and crime in a downtown Salt Lake City neighborhood where The Road Home shelter used to be. 

Utah lawmakers received an update on the initiative Thursday during a meeting of the Legislature’s Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force.

Since the operation started in August 2017, the Salt Lake County Jail has processed more than 8,000 bookings as part of the initiative, though that includes people who could have been booked into the jail more than once. 

That’s according to Chief Deputy Matt Dumont with the county Sheriff’s Office. He said there’s been an increase in the jail’s daily population over the course of the operation, peaking at 520 individuals incarcerated due to the operation on March 2, 2019. 

“The Salt Lake County Jail actually averaged over 400 people who were in jail due to Operation Rio Grande, and that was from March 15, 2018 to March 15, 2020,” Dumont said.

But Dumont said the jail has recently released more inmates to prevent spreading COVID-19.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is the chair of the task force. He said the decline in the jail’s population makes him worry about an increase in crime, and he wondered “at what point do we start putting people back in.”

“I think we need to balance,” Ray said. “To me, public safety comes first. Whether an inmate catches COVID-19 is a secondary issue to me.”

Ray said he has noticed more criminal activity and homeless encampments around North Temple and 800 West in Salt Lake City. He said the city needs to step up its policing, as the Utah Highway Patrol phases out of the operation. 

David Litvack, a senior policy advisor with the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, said the city police force has been stretched thin this summer due to ongoing protests. But he said they’ve taken note of issues in the neighborhood.

“North Temple has been an area of focus over the last several months, both from a homeless outreach standpoint as well as stepped up bike patrol to address the concerns that you’ve mentioned,” Litvack told Ray at the meeting.

He said what’s happening on North Temple stresses one of the ongoing challenges of the operation — that it has continued to shift what he called “the criminal element” throughout the city.

Emily Means covers politics for KUER. Follow Emily on Twitter @Em_Means13

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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