While the contents of this post may seem overly critical of Operation Rio Grande's (ORG) performance and, by extension, the State, it is important to understand that when it comes to public programs, there is no amount of scrutiny that is excessive. When it comes to tax dollars, over which the state is steward, the public deserves robust analysis and opinion to evaluate the utility of social programs like ORG.
It is difficult to assess what benchmarks the state uses to evaluate its own success with this program. Each phase of the program has a stated objective and an associated benchmark. That benchmark, however, doesn't elude to an actual number, like a percent increase or decrease in some measure. Unless the state can articulate those benchmarks, we can only infer with what is available.
It is important to note that the State has issued data updated at somewhat consistent intervals, but as of the writing of this post in December 2020, the numbers had not yet been publicly updated since July 2019. As a result, owing to this delay in reporting, some calculations have to be made based on the data that is available and then extrapolated to the present.
This post will be updated with corrections if new data is issued that would fundamentally change the evaluations herein.
The source of data used for nearly all of the analysis performed was pulled from a static website found here. According to the ACLU of Utah, this data was published in the 14 or so months following ORG's initiation, but has not been updated since 10/31/18. The data is accurate up to that date and serves as the foundation for all findings.
Any others sources used are hyperlinked.
OPERATION RIO GRANDE
I was riding the bus one day in fall 2017. An unusually chatty rider was telling a coworker about her weekend. Grandkids, church, preparing for Halloween.
This particular bus route took us, on our way into downtown Salt Lake City, through a harsher part of town. Known as Rio Grande, this area is a visual reminder of what a social services disaster looks like. Unsurprising tent encampments, litter filling the gutters. I recall a few weeks prior to this bus ride I had forgotten my bus pass and as such was obliged to walk to the office. My walk took me right through the heart of Rio Grande. Being an ex-cop with a bigger bark than bite and having lived in big cities across the world, I wasn't entirely worried about my safety. If I was anything, I was sad.
As I walked, I frequently had to avoid stepping on open syringes, feces, and people. Every minute or so I was asked if I was either lost or aware of where I was. I'd chuckle and ask if it was obvious. There was an ambulance up the street, an every-day sight in this area, likely tending to an overdose.
But back on the bus that fall in 2017, the chatty woman, when we passed by the homeless shelter which was routinely surrounded by droves of people, including women with babies and children, ugh'd in disgust. "Why don't they go somewhere else?! They're so gross." I was appalled but not surprised.
I suppose her question was fair. Why didn't they go somewhere else? It's a big world out there with lots of underpasses, dingy corners, and 7-11s to loiter around. So why there? Why the homeless shelter of all places?!
Before we dig into the procedural effectiveness of ORG, let's survey the demographics of those arrested as part of the Operation, as well as examine additional patterns among those individuals.
It may come as no surprise that the majority, 74%, of those arrested were men compared to 26% which were female. We can extrapolate or otherwise infer a few things from this. Imagine viewing the Rio Grande area aerially where you see droves of homeless individuals wandering the street. For every group you can see, ~7 out of 10 will be men, and ~2 out of 10 will be women. These figures closely align with the Homelessness Research Institute's demographic data.
Dropping down one level to dissect the specific gender data, we find some interesting patterns among the age groups of those arrested. Using US Census age groups, the majority of those arrested, both male and female alike, hail from the 25 to 44-year-old bracket. The fewest arrests for an age group was among the 65 and older population.
One figure that stands out is the portion of the arrests that were of individuals in the 18 to 24-year-old age group. A striking 8% of the the total arrests were of individuals who, by many accounts, are still young, naïve kids. This means that potentially 8% of those homeless are in the 18 to 24-year-old age bracket.
That same year, a state human services initiative dubbed Operation Rio Grande (ORG), was touted as being the solution to downtown Salt Lake City's homelessness problem. The overarching objective: Prevent and Minimize Homelessness. An undeniably complex issue which, like many other human problems, has many interconnected causes and effects where addressing one doesn't necessarily resolve the others.
Phase 1 of ORG began on August 14, 2017. Its goal: Improve public safety and order. A multi-agency approach was taken to sweep Rio Grande. The results:
In the first month, over 1,100 arrests were recorded.
Of those 1,100 arrests, 62% were released immediately.
Of those released immediately, 68% were released due to jail overcrowding.
In addition, 10% of total arrestees were released immediately on their own recognizance and another 21% percent were released by order. This generally is the case with those booked who also have outstanding misdemeanor warrants.
Combined, 62% of those arrested during the time period in question were released immediately back into homelessness. It is difficult to assess the success of this phase when the goal was to simply arrest people, and when over half of those arrested were returned to where they were prior to booking: no where.
ARRESTS & CHARGES
In an effort to combat chronic homelessness, the state arrested ~1,100 people in the first month of ORG.
Indeed, following the Phase 1 arrest initiative and as shown below, crime in the Rio Grande area decreased dramatically. This decided decrease satisfies one part of Phase 1: Significant reduction in criminal activities.
A logarithmic trend line was used instead of a linear one due to the dramatic change in data from 8/14/17 to about mid-September 2017.
In addition to reducing criminal activity in the area, one of the highlighted goals of this effort was to get hardened criminals off the streets. How do we define hardened criminals and what do the numbers say about the state's performance to that end? While there does not appear to be an official definition, I would suggest, owing to my learnings as a law enforcement officer myself, a hardened criminal is one that is a serial offender, who may have a criminal history that contains more felonies than misdemeanors, or who has ultimately done time. Unfortunately, the arrest and booking data available from the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office does not provide any insight into criminal history, so extrapolating serial offender counts is not possible. Additionally, because there is no criminal history data, we cannot extrapolate a count of those who have done time. However, we can see the amount of felony warrants that were for violent charges. According to my analysis, approximately 9% of the felony warrant arrests were for violent crime charges.
*I did ask about GRAMA requesting the criminal histories for the individuals listed as arrested during the 8/2017 - 10/2018 period, but was told it would not only take months to compile that information, but would cost a small fortune based on Utah's statutory GRAMA fees.
Without a clear definition from the state as to what a hardened criminal is and isn't, we are unable to assess their success against their stated objective.
What we’re left to use is counts of felony charges and misdemeanor charges. From that, we can pull out some simple data to drive our analysis of success or failure.
According to the data found here, as of 10/31/2018, 5,540 arrests had been recorded as part of ORG's Phase 1. Of those 5,540 arrests, 3,308 felony and 27,463 misdemeanor charges were levied, for a total of 30,771 charges. In addition, 1,348 arrest and 3,795 misdemeanor warrants were executed. If we are to consider felonies as being part of the definition of hardened criminals, we can readily see a charging emphasis on misdemeanors over felonies, which seemingly misses the mark.
Breaking down the felonies and warrants below, we see the majority share of felony arrests were for 3rd-degree felonies (the lowest level felonies), and the majority share of misdemeanor arrests was for Class B misdemeanors.
Of all felony charges, over half were 3rd-degree felonies.
Of all misdemeanor charges, over half were for Class B misdemeanors.
In summary, while part of ORG's stated purpose of Phase 1 appears to have been met, there also appear to be some gaping holes in the quality of these arrests. Additionally, the state was successful in removing hoards of people from the Rio Grande area, so it stands to reason crime for the area would subsequently drop in parallel. It likewise stands to reason that with the 62% of those arrested being released almost immediately, these people went to other parts of the community, which seems to fail the remaining phases of the program.