A Salt Lake police officer leans against his patrol car and stares at the man sprawled on the sidewalk. The policeman is waiting for a backup officer, five firefighters and two paramedics to arrive. It's just another day of dealing with public drunks.
Salt Lake police made 3,005 arrests in 1988 for public intoxication; add another 900 cases in which the drunks were gone when officers arrived or were able to pick themselves up and make it to a detoxification center on their own."It's not a problem just for the police department. It's a problem for everybody," said Lt. Marty Vuyk, who heads the department's Community Affairs Division.
Business owners complain about drunks passed out in their doorways, downtown workers tell tales of overly aggressive panhandlers and officers moan about hours spent hauling intoxicated people from city streets to jail to the detox center and back to city streets.
"The cops on the street will tell you the same thing - it's nothing but a revolving-door operation. You pick up the same people day in and day out," said Lt. Steve Diamond, a 25-year veteran.
"It's the same problem areas. And it depends on which bar was torn down which year where the hot spot is," said Diamond, who is a watch commander. "Now it seems like Third South and Main Street" is the area of preference for public drunks.
During December alone, 124 public intoxication arrests were made on Main Street from Third to Fourth South.
Police department statistics do not show how many of the arrests were repeat offenders. But looking through the arrest logs shows many frequent fliers in the detox center.
Salt Lake City and County contract with the detox center, run by Volunteers of America, to hold and sober up public drunks. But the center on the west side of Central City only can hold about five dozen people. And it will not accept those who in the past have assaulted workers or others in the facility.
With only 61 beds, the inn runs out of room early on a Friday or Saturday night, when the largest percentage of public intoxication arrests are made.
"Detox is overcrowded. The jail is overcrowded. What do we do with them?" said Salt Lake County Sheriff Pete Hayward. "I wish I had the answer."
Officials at the county jail were ordered last spring to keep the jail's population below 550 inmates to reduce liability. And the number of holding cells where drunks who have committed crimes are put to sober up also are limited, Hayward said.
"We have holding tanks but we can only hold them for a short time," he said. "We have got a lot of drunks."
But solutions such as more officers and beds cost money that the city and county both say is not available.
Going after bars that sell liquor to drunks also takes time and officers, because an officer must witness an already-intoxicated person going into a tavern and being served a drink to slap the owner or bartender with any sanctions.
Some bars in the central city area do good business with the drunks who later curl up in the doorway of a downtown business to sleep. "Keep in mind that's where the majority of the intoxicated spend their time because it's cold in the park, the liquor store doesn't sell the fortified wines, and these businessmen apparently welcome their business," said Diamond.
Yet options such as forcing the business owners to refrain from selling to the alcoholic street people are unworkable, he said.
"That's like saying to the grocery store, `Please don't sell those frosted cereals to mothers with kids because we all know sugar's not good.' It's called prior restraint," the lieutenant said.
The Utah Commission on Alcoholic Beverage Control has extended its ban on sale of fortified wines - the high-alcohol, low-priced wines that are popular with the alcoholic street people.
In an experiment to determine if a ban will affect crime rates, state liquor stores at 205 W. Fourth South, 54 N. Eighth West, 1457 S. Main and 5140 S. State St. no longer offer those wines.