SALT LAKE CITY — In the days since Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder introduced a 21-point plan to tackle homeless and crime issues in the Rio Grande neighborhood, he says he's only heard criticisms — not solutions.
That included the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah expressing concerns about the constitutionality and effectiveness of the plan, which includes reducing the size of the 1,100-bed Road Home on Rio Grande Street and establishing a city-managed "urban campsite."
Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke also issued a statement last week calling the plan an apparent "attempt to divert attention away from the failure in responsibility to provide adequate jail space" and Winder's "overly restrictive jail booking policies."
So when Winder learned Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said Tuesday some aspects of the plan are "immoral" or "illegal" — while other aspects have already been attempted by Salt Lake City police — the sheriff was left a little ruffled.
"My job as an elected official is to promote policies and initiatives. I'm fine with taking criticism about these policies, but jeez," he said. "All I'm asking the city to do is lose the personal vitriol and recognize that the community up here needs them to engage and engage now."
Winder said his plan is simply the compilation of ideas that have been included in discussions with stakeholders — including Salt Lake City — over the past two years, and he meant it to be a starting point for "substantive action" now, before the drug- and crime-riddled atmosphere on Rio Grande Street flares up again.
His plan is meant to address issues while Salt Lake City waits for three new homeless shelters to be built.
"If they want to propose a management alternative, let's do that rather than find the flaws with this particular proposal," the sheriff said. "There needs to be a re-engagement of a legitimate professional conversation. Nothing gets done here if we're going to sit across the border and throw stones at each other."
Winder's comments came after he attended a meeting with the Pioneer Park Coalition — a group of businesses, property owners and community leaders in the Rio Grande area.
During the same meeting, the coalition — which has endorsed Winder's plan — voted to urge Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County leaders to sit down and discuss the ideas by April 12 in order to formulate a workable plan.
If that meeting doesn't happen by then, the coalition will organize a summit with the city and county leaders to come up with solutions, the coalition agreed.
"Until we can get them together and we can sit down and talk back and forth and have an open professional dialogue, we will be stuck in a rut that will never get fixed," said Scott Howell, a member of the coalition.
Jason Mathis, director of the Downtown Alliance — another Salt Lake City business group — said although he has some concerns with certain aspects of Winder's plan, some new action needs to be taken before problems worsen as temperatures rise.
"Everybody agrees something has to be done now to get ready for the next six months," Mathis said. "The next six months are going to be brutal if we don't get on top of it."
Winder welcomed Pioneer Park's request for action, saying he'll be readily available to sit down with city officials over the next week.
Whether that meeting will happen is unclear.
"We're more than happy to sit down with the sheriff," said David Litvack, Mayor Jackie Biskupski's deputy chief of staff, but that meeting hasn't been set up yet and he wasn't certain whether that would be able to happen within the week.
Litvack noted city officials are constantly working on ways to improve the situation near Pioneer Park, and that the city and county are already planning a meeting in the near future to discuss the next phase of Operation Diversion, a strategy to divert the addicted and mentally ill to treatment.
Earlier Tuesday, the Salt Lake City police chief expressed concerns about Winder's draft plan while meeting with the Salt Lake City Council, though he credited the sheriff for making suggestions.
"Many (aspects of the plan) are best practices," Brown said. "Some of them we've tried and they're not good practices. Some of them shouldn't be done. Some of them are immoral, illegal, and we can't do. So I appreciate the suggestions, but we've been at this game for many years. This is kind of our sandbox and we're pretty good at it."
Brown said the city's ongoing efforts using social workers and Operation Diversion have shown success, and his department is constantly working to improve the situation.
In an interview after the meeting, Brown said he'd "love to sit down" with Winder, adding there is also "frustration" within his department as well — particularly with officers' ability to keep offenders behind bars when there isn't enough jail space.
"I talk with a lot of officers and one of the very first things they do is they say, 'Chief, we need some jail beds,'" Brown said. "It's not that we want to arrest our way out of the problem because we know we can't.... (but) I think we definitely need some more jail space."
Winder said that too is up-and-coming — perhaps within the next month.15 comments on this story
This year, the Utah Legislature appropriated nearly $3 million to help Salt Lake County contract with other jails across the state to increase availability upward of 300 beds. But exactly how many beds that will actually fund is still uncertain, Winder said, pending ongoing contract negotiations with other county jails.
But jail beds, Winder said, is only one piece of the puzzle — one that needs to be pieced together sooner than later.
"I hope Salt Lake City and the county can have an amicable and good professional working relationship," the sheriff said. "That certainly is our intent."