SALT LAKE CITY — A massive police effort is underway in Salt Lake City's embattled Rio Grande neighborhood, the center of the state's homeless population and drug trade.
The surge marked the beginning of what has been called Operation Rio Grande, as lawmakers elaborated for the first time about the ambitious three-phase plan they say will last two years in an attempt to curb crime surrounding the Road Home shelter, help those faced with addiction and homelessness, and provide training and employment to those striving to improve their lives.
As a flood of law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions — more than 80 officers, according to police at the scene — worked their way through the turbulent area Monday, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox emphasized the large undertaking "is not a crackdown," but a targeted and deliberate effort to identify and arrest criminals frequenting the neighborhood.
"This is very targeted and very surgical," Cox said, speaking from the Utah State Emergency Operations Center at the state Capitol. "There has been a tremendous amount of intelligence that has been gathered over the past few days and weeks and months — and literally years in some cases — to identify the worst of the worst, the criminal element that has infiltrated this area."
Details about arrests during the initial sweep were not immediately available.
Monday's arrests were focused on removing "the worst of the worst" from the area, according to Cox, who last month was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert as the "point person" to lead the executive branch and its agencies.
Thank you to all the men and women on the front lines restoring public safety as #OperationRioGrande begins this morning.— Gov. Gary Herbert (@GovHerbert) August 14, 2017
Beds in the Salt Lake County Jail have been made available for the operation by moving state prisoners to five other counties, Cox said. Additionally, 36 treatment beds for those battling addiction will be made available in the next few weeks, he said, and that number will grow to more than 200 in coming months.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, was with officers from state, county and local agencies as they arrested people with outstanding warrants and for drug possession.
Ray wore a bulletproof vest given to him by the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office as he watched them arrest a woman with several warrants who had a syringe and other drug paraphernalia with her.
"This time it's a long-term plan. We're going to come through, we're going to go after the drug dealing. We're going to go after the lawlessness, and we're actually going to get help for the homeless, treatment for mental health, substance abuse," he said.
"This is not just go down and do a show of force and leave. We're going to continue this to eradicate drugs and lawlessness here."
Even deputies from Davis County Sheriff's Office were participating in the Rio Grande crackdown, according to Ray.
"I think this is the first time this has ever been done, even nationally. To be in the briefing this morning, to see the number of different agencies that are together, and we worked with Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, and of course from the state, AP&P (Adult Probation and Parole), we've brought private treatment into this. We've tried to work with everybody to make sure this is successful," he said.
Ray said the operation was able to start after beds for treatment were secured. He said he walked around the Rio Grande area on Saturday night in plain clothes and talked to people.
"A lot of them told me, 'Hey, I'm trying to get off the drugs but I can't,'" he said.
Lawmakers announced the operation last month following a lengthy closed-door meeting, a response to escalating violence in the area including three homicides in the neighborhood in less than two weeks. At the time they revealed no details about their plans to defuse the situation.
In a tweet Monday morning, Herbert praised all who are participating in the operation.
"Thank you to all the men and women on the front lines restoring public safety as #OperationRioGrande begins this morning," Herbert said.
Cox responded to the governor on Twitter, saying, "Thank you Governor. Today we begin to restore law (and) hope to the Rio Grande district."
Operation Rio Grande carries a similar name to Operation Diversion, an effort carried out in three phases by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County leaders and police last fall. Police sweeps through the neighborhood were called an attempt to arrest criminal drug dealers preying on the vulnerable homeless population, while those battling addiction were offered treatment over jail.
After three sweeps — during which nearly 70 percent of people detained chose treatment over jail — problems on the crowded downtown blocks persisted, apparently undeterred.
Additional details will be posted throughout the day.