Utah police descend on drug-plagued downtown shelter area

Monday , August 14, 2017 - 5:23 PM1 comment

By LINDSAY WHITEHURST, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Police descended on a downtown Salt Lake City neighborhood near an overcrowded homeless shelter Monday in a surge aimed curbing the drug trade following a string of violent attacks this summer.

More than 100 police officers walked the blocks in the gentrifying area near the arena where the NBA’s Utah Jazz play as a state police helicopter circled overhead. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox called it a surgical strike aimed at the “worst of the worst.”

The scene where people milled around near The Road Home shelter was generally restrained midmorning as police in navy polo shirts and cargo pants fanned out amid people sleeping in tents or carrying large backpacks or carts full of their things. At one point officers stopped a man on a bicycle carrying a backpack that contained a can of spray paint, a gun and several syringes.

The sweep is part of a two-year effort that will also include drug treatment and help getting jobs, Cox said. “In Utah, more than anywhere else in the world, we believe in helping and caring for the less fortunate,” he said.

No new spots in treatment programs were immediately available. But officials are hoping to open up a few dozen beds in the coming weeks and about 200 early next year if the federal government approves Utah’s plan to expand its Medicaid program to the poorest of the poor.

“I’ve never seen Utah like this,” said Kaby Johnson, 48, who’s lived in the area on and off since she was a teenager. She said she’s kicked a drug habit, but it’s hard to get back on her feet when she’s constantly worried about someone stealing her things — or police telling her she has to move out of her tent.

Kellie Beck, 26, said drug dealers set up shop in the area with easy highway access to sell to people passing through, including those from affluent areas. “This is where a lot of people make their money,” she said. While the police surge might keep things safer in the short run, she’s not sure any change will last.

State leaders, though, said during a news conference that they’re in it for the long haul, and if the drug trade moves elsewhere in the city they’ll follow it. The heavy police surge is expected to last five days.

“We’re going to be very visible, but we’re also very sensitive to the community we serve and also those in need of help,” Utah State House Speaker Greg Hughes said.

He floated the idea of calling in the National Guard in July after police said a woman drove into a crowd of people, killing one, the same weekend a homeless man attacked a visiting minor-league baseball player with a crowbar during an attempted robbery.

Later that month, a man was beaten to death and three other people were hurt in a series of random, unprovoked rock attacks, and a man was shot to death on a sidewalk.

The area also drew attention in February 2016, when police shot and critically wounded a teenage Somali refugee in a shooting that sparked immediate unrest and became a flashpoint in the national conversation about police use of force.

The city is also planning to close The Road Home shelter and replace it with three smaller shelters spread though the city over the next two years.

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