SALT LAKE CITY — Andy Eatchel, who lives near Browning Avenue, said for years there's been "bike chop shops" and drug dealing happening in the apartments on his street — an ongoing frustration of his.
But after Operation Rio Grande launched in August, Eatchel said, the problem has become "much, much worse."
"There's been an explosion of illegal activity of all kinds," he said, telling of how sometimes parties of dozens of people will come to the apartments where people who have been given housing vouchers have been living.
"So maybe one or two people are supposed to be living there, but they bring their friends from the Rio Grande area and they set up camp," Eatchel said. "They come in, 15 or 20 people at a time to a one-bedroom apartment, and they can't all fit so sometimes they spill out onto the lawns. ... It's a filthy environment."
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Police Chief Mike Brown listened as other Liberty Park residents shared similar stories of frustrations since Operation Rio Grande began, with many complaining about a perceived lack of police presence and responsiveness in the Liberty Park area during the Liberty Wells Community Council meeting Tuesday night.
While the gathering wasn't as raucous or angry as others, the residents who spoke expressed deep concern for their neighborhood and pleaded with the mayor and the chief for action.
"We don't want to walk our dogs right now. Our kids don't want to go to the park — they're scared. I watch people shoot up heroin. I call the police, but nobody's doing anything about it," said one woman who lives south of Liberty Park. She declined to share her name, concerned for her safety.
"What's happening right now — it's not working," the woman said. "We don't want to become Pioneer Park. We're scared."
Megan Buhler said she's lived on Hollywood Avenue in Liberty Wells for 11 years, but she's "never felt more unsafe."
She said recently her husband's wallet was stolen — and just days later while he was out of town, her wallet was stolen right out of her locked, parked car while she was inside the house for 15 minutes.
But what really rankled Buhler was when she tried to report both crimes to Salt Lake City police's 801-799-3000 phone number. She said dispatchers refused to take the report over the phone and required her to file it online and no officers came to help.
Resident Stuart Clason told of how it took 10 minutes until an officer responded to a 911 call about a shooting near his house.
"I have a pregnant wife, a little baby ... I feel unsafe. We feel unsafe. Is that the collective feeling we have here?" Clason asked, to which his neighbors responded with applause.
Brown said bike patrol officers that were pulled off their beats to help with Operation Rio Grande were returned after 30 to 45 days, so officers should be patrolling the Liberty Wells neighborhoods. Brown also said about 20 officers have recently graduated from the police academy, but he acknowledged it takes months before they become integrated.
As numerous residents complained they haven't seen patrolling officers in their areas, Brown said "we need more cops, I'll tell you that right now."
"We do," Biskupski agreed.
Biskupski and Brown began the meeting urging residents to continue calling dispatch to report crimes because a ripple effect from Operation Rio Grande was expected. But as they continued to hear stories of how residents had tried to report crimes but were met with dispatchers refusing to take reports by phone or a lack of police response, they grew concerned.
Biskupski said she was "disturbed" by Buhler's story, saying she's been urging residents concerned about Operation Rio Grande's impact on their neighborhoods to call the 799-3000 number.24 comments on this story
"Honestly, what I'm hearing is very disheartening," she said, adding that dispatchers not taking calls "doesn't work for me."
Biskpuski then promised to meet with the city's 911 director on Friday to discuss the issue and she pledged to meet with officers responsible for the Liberty Wells area to evaluate and adjust response.
"We will create a strategy over the next 30 days to make this community safer," she said at the conclusion of the meeting, which was met with applause.
Biskupski also expressed wanting to revisit the issue at Liberty Wells' next community meeting.