"Male, ball cap, brown leather jacket, jeans ... walking down 400 South near 300 West ... done deal, done deal," the undercover Salt Lake City police officer conveyed on his two-way radio.
Those last words were the cue to uniformed officers waiting nearby that he had just bought drugs from a street dealer. Less than a minute later, two officers have the man handcuffed on the ground.
Like most of the drug dealers working the areas around Pioneer Park, the man is a "spitter," or a dealer who stores thumbnail-size balloons filled with crack cocaine inside his or her mouth. "Spitters" can quickly swallow their evidence if a cop approaches them.
But unlike most of the other dealers police encountered on this night, the man does not swallow his drugs before police get to him.
"You're new at this, aren't you?" one officer asks the man rhetorically.
The officers get the man to spit out 18 balloons. A field test confirms high-grade crack-cocaine is inside each one.
The man was one of 18 arrested Thursday night in an undercover operation. It's part of the police department's efforts to rid the area of an ever-increasing drug problem.
Earlier that night, before officers started "Operation Buy-Rip," Lt. Mike Ross, who supervised the effort, briefed all those involved. He explained how the police department was feeling the heat from residents tired of drug dealers and the crime associated with them.
"The complaints are still increasing," he said.
For decades, Pioneer Park has had the well-earned reputation of being the Mecca of drug and prostitution activity in the city. This year, however, the drug problem has gone into overdrive. About 1,500 people have been arrested in and around the park so far this year, said Chief Chris Burbank. In the past six months alone there have been 500 arrests. Ross said 260 of those came directly from his unit doing undercover drug buys.
"Throughout the summer we have been working this harder than we have in a lot of years," Burbank said. "Not since the park was staffed with officers 24 hours a day have we seen arrest numbers like this."
Of special concern is the skyrocketing demand for crack.
"We are seeing levels of crack we've never seen before in this area," Burbank said.
Crack is what fueled violence and turf wars among gangs in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, Burbank said. Police in Salt Lake say they want to get control of the crack problem before similar violence occurs here.
"I've never seen it like this before. Everyone is selling crack," Ross said.
The increased drug activity comes at a time when the area around the park is booming with high-end condo construction as well as the opening of new businesses and restaurants. The dichotomy of the situation was in plain view Thursday night as couples enjoying dinner or a movie or shopping walked arm-in-arm along 200 South to get their cars while directly across the street a crack dealer was making a sale.
The drug problem associated with the park is nothing new. But public awareness was heightened on Oct. 12 when one man was killed and a second was critically injured in the park by a man with a knife who was shot and killed by police. Since then, the park has become one of this election year's hot potatoes.
Both candidates to take Rocky Anderson's seat as mayor, Ralph Becker and Dave Buhler, said they support the idea of putting surveillance cameras in Pioneer Park to curb drug activity.
Earlier this month, business owners and residents packed a small coffee shop to organize a Neighborhood Watch program.
In September, Anderson and Burbank announced a "major campaign" to rid the city of drug-related problems by going after the people who buy drugs. The first phase of that project was to focus on Pioneer Park. In the same month, council members approved about $420,000 for park upgrades as part of Anderson's proposed $4 million park makeover.The mayor has been fighting for several years with the City Council to get funds to implement his three-stage plan. Anderson's vision for the park includes an off-leash dog area, a cafe, bell tower, volleyball courts and historic gardens. Construction on some of those items has already begun. Stage two includes new restrooms, a concession area, a public plaza and a pavilion.
Not just a police problem
After just a few minutes of circling the streets near the park, one can see why Burbank has said, "We can't arrest ourselves out of this problem."
Drug dealers are easy to spot. And there are a lot them. Finding a dealer is almost like looking for a scalper on the street before a Utah Jazz game, only there are triple to quadruple the number of drug dealers. Even as an undercover officer pulls over to buy drugs, two more dealers approach another nearby undercover vehicle with plain-clothed officers inside who aren't even trying to buy.
But as Ross noted, there wouldn't be that many dealers if the demand for the drugs wasn't there.
Approximately 70 percent of the people arrested around the park reoffend during the first year after their arrest, Burbank said. The police department even did its own study this year to assess the extent of the problem.
Burbank said 16 suspects were chosen at random to monitor. Investigators discovered those 16, during a six-month period, were arrested an average of two times a month for drug-dealing around the park. Each of the arrests resulted an average of two hours of jail time or less, he said.
Burbank is not faulting the jail, pointing out that such short stays are the result of too many drug dealers and drug-addicted people overwhelming the system.
"There are three times as many adults seeking treatment as slots available," he said.
During the day, Ross said Pioneer Park is practically the only place to buy drugs. At night, when the park is closed, the dealers spread out into nearby neighborhoods. Thursday night, undercover officers found plenty of people willing to sell drugs between 400 West and 600 West and between 200 and 400 South. The area along 500 West in particular was busy. In some cases, officers going after one drug dealer passed other drug deals happening in plain view.
"Can you help me out?" an undercover asks a potential dealer. Sometimes the officers simply ask, "Got 20 white?" which is lingo for asking a dealer for a balloon of crack-cocaine for $20, the standard street price. And sometimes the officers don't have to say anything at all.
As undercover officers drive slowly down the street, they make eye contact with potential dealers who will nod at them. In one incident, an officer gave a whistle to two young-looking men, possibly juveniles, who gave a return nod. The officer then waved a $20 bill, and without saying a word, one man spit a balloon out of his mouth and the other walked to the car to make the transaction.
Moments later, the men found themselves in handcuffs.
After several busts Thursday night, word started to spread among dealers that police were patrolling the area heavily that night. Undercover officers moved to 600 West. There, they found a man who was on 500 West earlier now directing traffic to a dealer down the street. When the officers pull up to buy drugs, however, the dealer says he can't sell right now."The cops were just here. Come back in five minutes. ... I have to throw the drugs back up," he said.
History, traditions and reality
Despite efforts to clean up the park, the fact remains that for decades, regardless of what anyone has tried, the park retains its reputation as a drug haven.
One of the few exceptions is on Saturdays, when the popular Farmers Market takes over in the morning. But by night, there are few residents who would dare set foot in the square park between 300 and 400 West and 300 and 400 South.
It's a far cry from the park's roots, which at one time made that area the most important in the entire state, although the "state" at that time was actually the Mormon territory known as Deseret.
The genesis of Pioneer Park can be traced back to just one week after the first pioneers arrived in 1847. The pioneers built a fort on the 10-acre property currently known as Pioneer Park. The "Old Fort" settlement was one of the first permanent Anglo-Saxon settlement west of the Mississippi River. One of the first schools in the West was built in the fort in October 1847.
About 160 families and 1,700 people went through the square the first two years, according to the Utah Historical Society.
A letter to the editor by Oliver B. Huntington in the Deseret News on Aug. 10, 1888, described the inside of Old Fort, which now had walls all around the perimeter.
"Most of the houses were all built as part of the fort wall, with port holes for defense in case of ambush by Indians," the letter said.
There were 29 log homes on the initial site, which grew to 450 log cabins once the fort reached its peak size of 30 acres, according to the Salt Lake City Landmark Commission. Today, all physical evidence of those structures is gone.
There are many reports by Utah historians that the bell from the LDS temple in Nauvoo was once placed in the middle of the fort.
In records kept by the International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Sons of Utah Pioneers and the Utah Historical Society, some referred to Old Fort as the Plymouth Rock or Jamestown of the West. The state's first known speed limit was also put into law at this time. Signs were posted within the fort that no one could ride through "faster than a slow trot." Those caught breaking the law had to pay a $1.50 fine.
On Dec. 9, 1848, the first official meeting of the new provisional state of Deseret was held at the fort. On July 24, 1849, the state's first elections were held there. But as more families moved outside the fort to more permanent residences, the fort became simply a campground for people who had just arrived in town and by 1890 was just a city park.
On July 24, 1898, Old Fort's name was officially changed to Pioneer Park. The park, with its playgrounds and two swimming pools, was a popular place for families and children around the turn of the century.
But even as early as the 1890s there are reports that state leaders thought about selling the land. Records indicate that the transformation from a family-friendly area into what Pioneer Park is known as today started in the 1940s. The railroad and other industries pushed residents away.
"Pioneer Park became less used and acquired a seedy reputation," according to the Salt Lake Historical Landmark Commission in a 2003 letter prepared for the City Council.
Since then, about every 10 years there is a movement to clean up the park up and make it a family-friendly place once again or to sell it to private industry. But those efforts always seem to fade away
Salt Lake City Mayor Earl Glade appeared to be on the verge of selling the park in the late 1940s to early 1950s.
"It's not in the public interest for the city to hold that park when it could be part of tremendous value as an industrial site," Glade said in a newspaper article from 1950. Glade eventually changed his mind because the majority of citizens were against any type of sale.
In 1955, Sons of Utah Pioneers made the first of what would become many proposals to rebuild the fort.
In 1966, an architect drew up plans to have the old fort rebuilt and turn the park into a tourist attraction with wagon trains and horses inside the walls. That idea was kept alive in 1971 when Gov. Cal Rampton appointed a study commission to look at the idea of building the fort replica. A 1996 column printed in the Deseret News again looked at the idea of rebuilding the compound.
In 1958, there was a proposal to build a 10,000-seat amphitheater in the park, and another time there was a proposal to turn it into a golf course.
The park was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and was officially declared a city landmark in 1976.
Before Real Salt Lake, there was the controversy over where Salt Lake City should build a baseball stadium. In the early 1990s, Mayor Deedee Corradini was looking very closely at the area just southeast of Pioneer Park, referred to by city planners simply as Block 42, as the site for the new stadium.
The Rio Grande Neighborhood Coalition even held a celebration in 1994 for its "success" in regaining control of the park from drug dealers. That same year, the City Council approved a nighttime curfew at the park. An article from the Deseret News in 1994 read like something out of today's paper or even 1984: "Police have launched another effort to clean up Pioneer Park. This time they say they're serious."
Just two years later, Corradini closed the entire park for three weeks to clean it up.
There were proposals over the years to change the name of Pioneer Park to Pioneer Square to allow restaurants in the area to serve alcohol. Until 2003, state law prohibited alcohol from being served within 600 feet of a park.
This past September, the new Guardian Angels Salt Lake chapter patrolled the park as part of a training exercise.
Burbank stresses the drug problem at the park is not simply a "transient problem." He does not deny there are some people living at the shelter who are addicted to drugs and help fuel the demand. But officers see residents from all over the area, from all income brackets, travel down to the park to buy drugs."I've seen guys buying dope with their 2-year-old kid in the back seat," Ross said. "It makes me sick."