SALT LAKE CITY — Dozens have been arrested in a crackdown on crime in one of the city's worst neighborhoods.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski announced a series of arrests targeting the criminal element that preys upon those around the downtown homeless shelters. The crackdown was aimed at rooting out the problems that have plagued the Rio Grande district.
"This is not a traditional sweep of the neighborhood that has been tried before. This is a collaborative partnership between service providers and law enforcement agencies," she said. "This is a targeted action."
By late Thursday, 48 people had been taken into custody on charges ranging from intoxication and drug possession to drug dealing and warrants, police said.
"The public doesn't feel safe. Our businesses are negatively impacted and many vulnerable people, such as those experiencing homelessness, are targets of crime. All of this must stop," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said at a news conference with Biskupski.
But instead of simply making arrests, government officials insisted this crackdown is different. Not everyone was going to jail. People who were arrested were taken to a processing center to be evaluated. Drug dealers were being sent to jail, but addicts were going to treatment centers.
"I've said time and time again, we cannot arrest our way out of this problem," Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown told reporters.
Those who were going to jail were not going to be released early because of jail overcrowding, Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder insisted.
Winder acknowledged it was a bold experiment.
"Some of what we are engaging in today will not be successful," he said. "Much of what we will be engaging in will be highly successful and I promise you it will be much more successful than what we've been doing over the past many years."
Along 500 West behind the Rio Grande building -- which has been the epicenter of the problems -- it was more subdued than in recent days. Word had spread that the police were making mass arrests and many cleared out. Timothy Albe, who is homeless, told FOX 13 that the police had been aggressive.
"Police pretty much harassing the homeless and trying what they can to control a certain issue, which everybody knows is drugs," he said.
The crackdown drew praise from interest groups that have grown increasingly frustrated with the problems in Rio Grande. The Downtown Alliance, which represents downtown business interests, said it was glad to see politicians and police "taking this crisis seriously and working hard to improve conditions."
The ACLU of Utah raised concerns about the crackdown.
"Hmmmm. We like the 'immediate offer of treatment' part. But we don't like the 'rush of police officers into area full of vulnerable homeless people at 8:15 a.m.' part," the group said in a Facebook post. "We appreciate the media asking tough questions about how this is different from past sweeps of the area. Next time, we invite the city and county to invite the ACLU of Utah, the Community Coalition for Police Reform, Racially Just Utah and others to witness such 'operations' to ensure fair treatment of the individuals rounded by up law enforcement."
To combat the growing problem, the Utah State Legislature committed $27 million in funding to build new shelters and fund social service programs. Mayor Biskupski and members of the Salt Lake City Council have been divided recently on how big those shelters could be. The mayor wants a pair of 250-bed facilities, while the council wants even smaller shelters. The council insists she should make the decision of where they go.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he wants to see progress, if Salt Lake City wants that money to get this done.
"We have funding provided to do this but we need to get going and we certainly need to see some progress before we get into the next general session because there's high competition for those dollars," he told FOX 13.
In a statement to FOX 13, Salt Lake City Council Chairman James Rogers said he was happy with the crackdown in Rio Grande.
"We applaud the actions taken today to clean up Rio Grande. We anxiously await from Mayor Biskupski a long-term plan to clean up the area and to help the homeless this winter," he said. "The Council is also looking forward to seeing the sites she has selected for the new resource centers, which we have asked for by Oct. 10."