Salt Lake City police teamed up with federal immigration and state corrections officials for six days last week in an intense effort to clean up the area around Pioneer Park.
The result was 658 people arrested in the area from State Street to 600 West and from North Temple to 600 South. Eighty-seven of those arrests were for investigation of drug distribution and 165 for investigation of people trying to buy drugs.
"This is not the place to participate in drug activity," was the message Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank had for those arrested and others thinking about conducting drug transactions around the park.
Burbank called the numbers big, especially considering that after the first or second day of the operation, word had spread among dealers that police were clamping down.
Since summer, Pioneer Park has become a focal point in the city's efforts to combat an ongoing drug problem. Law enforcers have been especially concerned about the skyrocketing resurgence in the popularity of crack cocaine.
Burbank stood with other city, county and state leaders Wednesday to announce the success of last week's operation. He noted the effort wouldn't have worked without the cooperation of all agencies involved.
Because of the weeklong sting, the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office had 100 new felony cases to prosecute, and the Salt Lake City Prosecutor's Office had more than 355 new cases, he said.
The operation went 20 hours each day. Some undercover officers posed as drug dealers and others as drug buyers. Even longtime officers were amazed at some of the stories they came across.
In one incident, a man offered to trade stolen new shirts from a local chain department store for drugs. The man lifted his coat, revealing that he was wearing a stack of new shirts underneath. Salt Lake City police detective Jeff Bedard said that, a few years ago, designer jeans were being stolen in high quantities as drug dealers were willing to trade crack for jeans.
Another incident showcased the potential for drug deals to go bad and how some solicitors needed help for their drug addictions. A dealer sold a man two kernels of Trix cereal, convincing him they were actually colored balloons with drugs inside, Bedard said.
Uniformed officers also did their normal patrols during the six days, conducting strict enforcement of various crimes such as trespassing, disorderly conduct and open alcohol containers.
Once an arrest was made, the offender was taken to the Salt Lake Police Department's Pioneer Precinct, near 1000 South and 700 West, where a special room was set up for immediate booking. Those arrested had mug shots and fingerprints taken. Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement had a table set up to deal with undocumented offenders, while Adult Probation and Parole had an agent on hand to deal with prisoners with outstanding warrants.
A total of 946 arrests were made citywide during the six-day period. More than 70 percent of all city arrests during that time period came from the targeted zone around Pioneer Park an area that represented less than 1 percent of the city, according to police.
The drug arrests during those six days represented 8 percent to 10 percent of the drug arrests for the city for the entire year, Burbank said.
What made this operation more successful than others, however, was having the additional presence of AP&P and ICE. Nearly 180 of the people arrested already had outstanding warrants, according to police statistics.
A total of 68 people had federal holds placed on them for being undocumented aliens. The majority of people arrested already had been arrested in other states for drug-related offenses, and most had been in Utah less than four years, Burbank said.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder praised the city for its efforts, then took a shot at the Salt Lake County Council, which on Tuesday rejected his $5.9 million budget request to reopen the Oxbow Jail. Without a place to hold offenders, Winder said operations like the one the city conducted "will have limited impact."
"They're not in jail long enough to have warrants processed," he said.
Winder called on the council and Salt Lake County mayor to put more funding into jail space, saying alternatives to incarceration don't always work.
"Sometimes (jail) is the necessary answer to combat this type of activity," he said.
Salt Lake City prosecutor Sim Gill agreed that if incarceration is not an option, law enforcers lose their "credible threat."
"We will have no deterrent," he said.
Burbank said that, as of Wednesday, 68 percent of the people arrested last week were still in jail.
Gill said that, in addition to law enforcement, more funding was needed for drug programs to get offenders into rehabilitation.
"We shouldn't settle for moving the problem from one neighborhood to another," Gill said.
Some local residents and business owners attended Wednesday's news conference to show support for the police department's efforts and to encourage the media to also cover more positive events associated with the park.
Whether the increased police presence actually drives drug dealers and sellers away isn't the main point, according to residents.
"The difference is the hope we have in the neighborhood, knowing police have reinvested in the neighborhood," said resident Christian Harrison.Rather than being frustrated, Harrison said residents are now hopeful. The next step, he said, is to get more residents out of their homes and using the park. Even Burbank noted that if the park went unused, less desirable elements would use the space.