Spring is in the air and city residents are stepping out to enjoy a day in the park: Families, young couples, joggers. Drug dealers, junkies and tweakers. And as of early April, cops, too—lots of them. During the week of April 7, the Salt Lake City Police Department ran extensive sweeps of the Pioneer Park neighborhood. By week’s end, it had made 257 arrests, 103 of them involving drug felonies.
The blitzkrieg operation meant to target dealers and buyers was hailed in a news release: “The main thing is to establish a deterrent effect,” says Sgt. John Beener of the SLCPD’s Homeland Security Division. “[The sweeps] are going to be random, and if you choose to buy or sell drugs, you’ll really be taking your chances.” Sweeping crackdowns on the city’s drug hotspots may look like a way to curb a growing drug problem. But for some in law enforcement, there’s more to the picture.
“The vast majority of the people [arrested in the sweep], if history is any precedent, are booked, have their picture and fingerprints taken and then, before you know it, are right back out to Pioneer Park,” says Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder. Tasked with housing these individuals in the Salt Lake County Metro Jail, Winder thinks crackdowns and tougher penalties are mostly a moot point until there is actually room for the perpetrators. “Any city in this valley will tell you the problem is there’s no damned jail space.”
Winder has seen the county release rate top 1,800 inmate-charges per month. With county inmates averaging two to three criminal charges each, Winder estimates conservatively that about 600 inmates are being spat out of the system every month because of limited space. For the sheriff, this reality resurrects debate over finding more county jail space. “The criminal element knows they’re just taking a ride, that’s all.”
The recent sweep, according to Beener, was intensive. It involved several different departments and much overtime for officers involved in springing the trap. At the end, police discovered 80 percent of those arrested had been in Utah for less than two years. Beener believes many suspects were transients from nearby states, including Wyoming and Colorado. “I don’t think it’s a homegrown problem,” Beener says.
Beener is optimistic that arrests made during the sweep might make drug buyers think twice. “A lot of people [arrested] were shocked. [They] said, ‘Hey, don’t I just get a ticket for this?’” Beener says. “The drug dealers aren’t gonna be here if the buyers aren’t.”
Winder is doubtful. “There are some criminals that know the jail booking restrictions better than most cops do. It must be incredibly frustrating for [SLCPD]. They’re doing exactly what they should do, but at the same time, they’re still expending significant resources just transferring prisoners from one location to another, and the drug dealers know this—so what’s the deterrent?” he asks.
Winder has worked with others interested in the drug problem, including legislators and community representatives on the state Criminal Justice Advisory Committee. “The sole unanimous recommendation of that group last year,” Winder says, “was to get the Oxbow Jail operational.”
The Salt Lake County Oxbow Jail in South Salt Lake has been a political sore spot between Winder and the County Council. At one time, the jail had been unsuccessfully offered for sale to the state as a location for state inmates. When that deal failed, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon earmarked approximately $700,000 for capital improvements to the facility, with plans to reopen it to ease county jail overcrowding.
“Not only did they not open the jail,” Winder says. “But [the County Council] used the money to start another committee.”
“We supported capital upgrade for Oxbow,” says Doug Willmore, Corroon’s chief administrative officer. “We thought that was the best use of money. But the County Council thought differently.”
Councilman Mark Crockett, who is heading up the council’s new Social Justice Master Plan group, believes the county needs to look at the issue more comprehensively, before it makes a heavy dollar investment. “The priority right now is getting smarter about what we do, before spending hundreds of millions of dollars doing things the same old way.” Crockett estimates the county spends between $200 million and $250 million every year on criminal justice, and members want to explore other options like expanding community treatment programs before retrofitting Oxbow.
“The point is to make people safer,” Crockett says. “Lock them up or get them onto a more productive path [with treatment options].”
Winder says Oxbow would have set aside at least 200 of its 560 beds for social-service-treatment programs, including drug treatment. “The average tweaker is usually a segment of the [inmate] population that can’t get treatment unless they’re locked up,” Winder says.
Winder recognizes the value of voluntary community-treatment facilities but also realizes they are in short supply. “You show me an open community-treatment bed, and I’ll show you a happy wino.” Winder adds, though, in all seriousness, that available beds ought to be saved for those rare individuals who voluntarily commit to treatment.
The council still wants to err on the side of caution. “The decisions aren’t really about the money,” Crockett says. “We can and will find whatever funds are needed to keep the public safe. The question we are struggling with is what is the wisest way to spend the money.”
Winder sees it differently. “This county is jumping over dollars to save dimes,” Winder says. “It’s outrageous.”