In our opinion: Cleansing Pioneer Park of drug activity makes sense

Published: Monday, Oct. 7 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

An effort to get tough on drug dealers in Salt Lake City's Rio Grande district, coupled with greater outreach to the area's homeless population, is exactly the right prescription for a problem that city leaders are now wisely approaching as a top priority, and one that might be mitigated with the right amount of focus and tenacity.

A crime surge in and around Pioneer Park has posed a thorny problem for municipal leaders, given the district's resurgence as an appealing new business, residential and entertainment center. The mayor and police chief announced a "rebooting" of efforts to cleanse the area of drug activity and related crime.

There are two components to the campaign that deserve commendation. First, Mayor Ralph Becker and Police Chief Chris Burbank have acknowledged the efforts must be continuing and long-term. Second, the city has decided to balance a get-tough policy with service-based outreach to the disadvantaged population that seeks refuge in and around the park.

The approach reflects an understanding that the problems of homelessness and crime are inter-connected, but not necessarily a cause-and-effect. Many homeless people are in that state because of drug dependency. Providing services that lead to their rehabilitation eventually might put a dent in the market for drug dealers who ply their trade among that down-and-out population.

But the park also has become known beyond its denizens as a central marketplace for illicit drugs, and nothing short of vigorous and high-profile prosecution of drug offenses will free it from that stigma.

In announcing the new campaign, the police chief disclosed information about arrests made in the area during a single weekend in late-September. In two days, there were 24 arrests involving crack cocaine, 10 involving heroin and two for methamphetamine. Of those arrested, exactly half were staying at the homeless shelter. Eight of the arrestees were foreign nationals who police say may be affiliated with criminal gangs.

The numbers demonstrate the validity of reports by those who live and work near the park of daily instances of drug trafficking and other criminal behavior. The arrest numbers also hint at the scope of the prosecutorial harvest that a concerted police sweep of the area will yield. Officials say the drug dealers will face felony charges and users will be subject to prosecution that could lead, through court intervention, to various support services.

What the city has begun will work only if it is regarded as a long-term strategy. Officials have avowed such, but history suggests policies focused on the problem tend to be nomadic, wavering in intensity depending on how visible the problem is at any given time.

The situation calls for a long grind of a campaign, not a series of periodic assaults. City leaders seem to be awake to that reality, which is good news for those who would like to see a thriving part of the city finally cleansed of a sordid reputation.

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