Salt Lake police are trying to tear down the legend of the downtown area as a haven for juvenile delinquents and runaways.

Off-duty officers, using a $28,000 federal grant, are trying to get runaways off the streets to prevent juveniles from becoming prey for unscrupulous adults and falling into the cycle of crime.The Juvenile Interdiction Team began patrolling Salt Lake's downtown streets this week in a pilot program designed to help kids get the help they need and make the area more inviting for all residents.

"I think it's obvious to anybody who lives, works or shops down here we have the problem" of juveniles with no place to go but the streets and crime, said Sgt. Jim Jensen, who is in charge of the program.

"At least 43 percent - and that's a rock bottom figure - of crime downtown is juvenile crime."

Those crimes include prostitution, aggravated assault, burglary, shoplifting, and drug and alcohol violations. "We've had just about everything there but homicide."

The aim of the program is to identify those children who are truant, homeless, disturbed or runaways - ripe targets for what Jensen called "adult predators" who prey upon the helpless by providing shelter or drugs in exchange for sex and criminal goods.

"If we can interdict in their lives early and send them into the programs that are out there, we stand a good chance of making a difference in their lives," said Jensen, a father of five.

Studies by Youth Services show 80 percent of young people who run away stay away for at least a week, Jensen said. Of those who stay on the streets, virtually all turn to crime to survive and are victimized by crime.

But the appearance of crime in downtown deters shoppers from the area, which angers merchants. Enter high-visibility patrols.

"The legend of 50 South Main and the problems in the malls is just that - a legend. We do have a problem (but) it's not as big as the legend" that draws more children to the city.

The 26 officers patrol the downtown area in pairs, roughly 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Their pay comes from a federal grant administered through the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

"Our basic focus is as uniformed street officers, we're going to identify the status offenders and do everything we can to get them help" through counseling offered an alternative to criminal justice remedies, Jensen said.

The program is the first of its kind to intensely monitor juvenile delinquent activity on the downtown streets and is in tandem with department efforts to ensure first offenders don't make another trip through the system.

"I guess there's always the danger of the perception that we're just out to pick up kids," he said. "We're being very cautious that we keep our priorities in mind as we effect this program."

If the program proves itself, Jensen hopes the effort will continue with funds from within the department. As it stands now, the department can reapply for the grant for up to three additional quarters.