Drug-related police activity in the notorious Rio Grande neighborhood of Salt Lake City. Courtesy of Sorenson Impact Center

The neighborhood's reputation is so bad that the county’s mayor recently went undercover as a homeless person.

Time and again, local newspapers have described The Rio Grande district of Salt Lake City as a hotbed of lawlessness—the epicenter of drug crime in the city. The situation there appears to have become so bad that county mayor Ben McAdams recently went undercover as a homeless person to better understand the area. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, he recounted a “very chaotic environment” with stray needles strewn about, dealers popping out to push heroin every couple of blocks, and desperate, homeless people milling around. Now, the county has freed up more than 100 jail beds. That’s the first step in “Operation Rio Grande,”a forthcoming effort to aggressively stamp out drug crime in this part of Salt Lake City.

But how does a hotspot like Salt Lake City’s get so bad in the first place?

To find out, the Utah Association of Counties recently commissioned a study into the crime trends in the area for the last few years. The data, crunched by researchers at the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah, show that the story of this one troubled neighborhood is far more complex than it seems.

At the state level, the number of drug-related offenses have indeed risen, the analysis shows. While the absolute number of drug offenses has declined slightly in the last year or so, the share of this category among all offenses continues to rise. Note that the ascent in drug offenses had started way before 2015, when the state even passed its prison reform legislation many officials blame for the increase in drug offenses.

(Sorenson Impact Center/Utah Association of Counties)

The trend for Salt Lake County follows a similar pattern: drug crimes have increased and then flattened out (first chart below). But in Salt Lake City (second chart below), the story is very different. The number of drug offenders encountered by the police has risen drastically, roughly since 2013. In particular, incidents relating to heroin and amphetamines have spiked.

The most striking part of the analysis is that the Rio Grande area has been driving the increase in overall drug offenses reported—not just in the county—but in the entire state of Utah. “A lot of the drug crime is attributable to that one square block,”says Daniel Hadley, director of data science at the Sorenson Center. His team has created a heat map that shows how the local police department’s drug-related encounters have increasingly concentrated in that area over the last few years. Notice the red hot spot around Rio Grande as the timeline approaches 2016.

Rio Grande drug-related incidents over time. from Tanvi Misra on Vimeo.

But here’s the thing about this data: it can be misleading if you don’t know what you’re looking at. The truth is, the incidents recorded here include responses to 911 calls as well as stops, seizures, and arrests the police have made on their own. “That’s a pretty big bucket of police activity,” Hadley says. “Police statistics are not a true barometer of crime that's happening in the community. They're a good measure of where the police are doing the most enforcement.”

In 2014, the police opened a new bureau near Rio Grande to deal with the drug crime in the area, and since then, the boots on the ground have been increasing. County leaders have touted that Rio Grande is better lit and more closely surveilled. Diversion programs have not been successful, some law enforcement officials say, and recently, restrictions on booking low-level offenders into jail have been rolled back. Now, following a recent spate of violent incidents, the police are tripling their nighttime presence.  

The Sorenson report backs up the theory that the police have done some targeted enforcement in this region. The drug incidents—responses, stops, seizures, and arrests—in Rio Grande have been making up dramatically higher shares of the total incidents in the city (first graph below). And the ones that have resulted from traffic stops have also seen huge jumps every year since 2014 (second graph below).

Many city leaders and law enforcement officials have pointed to the state legislature’s move to soften sentences for minor drug crimes. Mayor McAdams was one of them. Via Deseret News:

“I think JRI was poorly implemented, we're seeing our communities are less safe, and the individuals who were formerly warehoused in the prison are now on our streets and making our communities less safe.”

But there’s not enough evidence to back that statement up. While the data certainly provides an interesting peek into the troubled Rio Grande neighborhood, it tells us more policing activity than anything else. “How much was change in policing procedures versus actual behavior—that's the thing we're still trying to tease out,”Licoln Shurtz, director of government affairs for the Utah Association of Counties, tells CityLab.

Several complex and overlapping dynamics are at play in the neighborhood, apart from the sentencing reforms. For one, a bulk of homelessness services are concentrated in the area. When Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s proposed the construction of new homelessness shelters dispersed around the city, she faced significant backlash from neighborhood associations. Recently, however, the state legislature has passed a bill appropriating money to build new facilities, and invested the county and state with the power to choose the site.

The other problem that makes this neighborhood vulnerable is its location. Some say that Rio Grande’s proximity to two major highways makes it particularly accessible to drug cartels and users across state lines. Per preliminary reports, 50 percent of the population in the neighborhood is from other states, Shurtz adds. But his association wants to confirm that through further data analysis, and hopes that policymakers will fine-tune or adjust their solutions accordingly.

“Everyone philosophically agrees with the approach that providing services is a better way to deal with substance abuse than just putting people in prison,” he says. “But at the same time, you’ve got to have a good understanding of who the population is, what services you need to be providing, and how to best deliver those services while keeping the lawlessness aspects out of the equation."

This article is part of our project, “The Diagnosis,” which is supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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