Increase in crime at Harmony Park worries residents
Feb 01, 2018 07:40AM ● Published by Holly Vasic
South Salt Lake Safe Parks Project sign. (Holly Vasic/City Journals)
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Harmony Park, located on 3700 South between West Temple and Main Street, may be facing the same problems that downtown’s Pioneer Park (400 West between 300 South and 400 South), faced before Operation Rio Grande began. This begs the question, did the problem just move from Salt Lake City to South Salt Lake?
In the unusually warm winter weather South Salt Lake resident, Gina Chavez, and her two young kids, enjoy the Salt Lake County owned Harmony Park with a friend and her kids. Chavez lives within walking distance to the park but they don’t visit much anymore.
“It was such a great escape for us to, you know, get here because we live so close, but the homeless people took it over and we got afraid to come,” Chavez said. On this day, Chavez felt safe to visit because the park was nearly empty. “They’re not here right now because the winter has drove them out so I figured it’s safe to come back but I see just a couple.”
Chavez explained that once Operation Rio Grande started in the summer she noticed the problem got worse. Not only did more transient people show up in the park but she experienced other issues.
“They’re fighting with each other, they’re beating each other up, they’re drinking, they’re peeing in the open, they’re using that bathroom over there to do their drug deals,” Chavez said. She has also heard some of her neighbors and friends have had packages stolen off their porches and their garages have been broken into.
“It’s gotten really bad, and I’ve called the police several times,” Chavez said but, according to her, that hasn’t done much. South Salt Lake Safe Parks Project have signs posted stating, “This park is continually monitored as part of South Salt Lake Safe Parks Project” and encourages park goers to call the police if they witness suspicious activity.
South Salt Lake Chief of Police Jack Carruth, wrote in an e-mail, “Over the last several months the South Salt Lake Police Department has been focusing enforcement in our city parks as well as Harmony Park (County owned), to address camping, alcohol and other violations within the parks.”
Operation Rio Grande
Operation Rio Grande began last summer and kicked off with phase one, which consisted of mass arrests of suspected criminals on Rio Grande Street, that runs parallel to Pioneer Park near The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake. Phase two began last fall and included getting homeless addicts, living on the street, help by placing them into rehabilitation programs. Media reports have shown hundreds of homeless people have fled the area, popping up in residential areas and other cities.
From Dec. 27, 2017 to Jan. 9, 2018, 16 incidents, including theft, car theft, property crime, breaking and entering, drug-related offenses, and sexual offenses, occurred in and around Harmony Park. Pioneer Park and surrounding neighborhoods have had zero in the same date range according to crimereports.com.
The migration of homeless people is occurring in South Salt Lake, Carruth prepared for this and is witnessing it himself. “The reality is Operation Rio Grande has moved those individuals throughout the valley and we have seen an increase at Harmony Park.” Carruth said Operation Rio Grande has been successful in other aspects.
Councilmember Shane Siwik, who has lived close to the park for years, said he believes Operation Rio Grande is a contributing factor but he has experienced Harmony Park getting worse over the years all on its own. Carruth agreed with that stating, “We have seen an increase of homeless individuals in our parks, even prior to Operation Rio Grande,” but is not anywhere near the level Pioneer Park used to be.
“Harmony Park is not the new Pioneer Park, nor is Fitts Park, or any other park in our city,” Carruth said.
Another contributing factor is the geographical location of South Salt Lake being so close to Salt Lake City and its resources. Salt Lake County has also been struggling with the homeless problem for at least a decade according to Carruth.
As the opening of the new homeless resource center in South Salt Lake draws near Carruth is anticipating challenges to overcome. “As part of Operation Rio Grande we will work with the state, and we are currently working with the state, to ensure that this new resource center brings the success they are looking for with Operation Rio Grande and for the years to come” Carruth said.
Trouble near the Trax line
At the Dec. 6, 2017 city council meeting Alexandra Ortiz, owner of Shade of Pale Brewery on 154 W. Utopia Ave, begged for something to be done about the fact her business has been broken into multiple times in the last year.
“This is the third break-in that we’ve been victims of,” Ortiz said. “The crime is just not getting better, kind of at the end of our rope, kind of really upset right now.”
Ortiz said the police are great but there is just not enough of them.
“So I guess my question is do you have plans to improve public safety in the city?” Ortiz asked the council. After the meeting a South Salt Lake police officer spoke with Ortiz, saying “Harmony Park is becoming the new Pioneer Park.” When told of an officer saying that statement Carruth responded, “I’m disappointed to hear that one of our officers has referenced Harmony Park to Pioneer Park, that is an inaccurate representation.”
The brewery is not in the immediate neighborhood of Harmony Park but is just off Central Pointe Station, two Trax stops away from Meadowbrook Station, which is about a half mile from the park. When Mandy Besigner, from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), presented South Salt Lake crime statistics at the Oct. 11, 2017 city council work meeting she discussed a trend.
“We noticed in areas that have Trax running through them…[are] going to have a lot more transient population,” Besigner said.
Ortiz was under the impression that homeless people receive free Trax passes which, she said, might be a factor in why businesses like hers along the Trax line are experiencing increased crime. The Utah Department of Workforce Services website states that individuals can get a 25 percent discount on a monthly pass using a Horizon Food Stamp card [SNAP]. To be eligible for SNAP, a person must be considered in poverty based on their income. Homeless people can qualify for SNAP and they do not pay for money to be on the food stamp card. Thus, Ortiz is correct, though it is not as simple as the state handing out free passes.
Carruth said the increase in patrols is also around Trax lines—not just at city parks—and believes this has less to do with Operation Rio Grande and more to do with what happens when a city grows. “With all that economic growth happening as a city and as the city expands and gets bigger that’s just more volume, more urban density, and that’s going to take more public safety.”
With different factors such as Trax locations, policies like Operation Rio Grande, and the upcoming homeless shelter, it is difficult to deny that Harmony Park is changing.
South Salt Lake resident Tammi Diaz looked to elected officials for answers at the Jan.10, 2018 council meeting.
“Mayor (Cherie Wood), what are you doing about Harmony Park? That’s our future Pioneer Park. Are elected officials promised to help get the drug dealers out of the city, you need to get on it,” she said.
Carruth said Wood has public safety as a high priority and is expanding the police force by 20 percent. “Her commitment as mayor is to keep public safety in line with the growth of this city so businesses do feel safe, and the community feels safe, and residents feel safe.”