A program that has off-duty officers patrolling the downtown area during times when teenagers commonly hang out there is being hailed as a success by the Salt Lake Police Department.

The Juvenile Interdiction Team began patrolling on foot the downtown area in January and initial results from the pilot study show the officers are making a difference, said Sgt. Jim Jensen.The program is turning out "better than we ever imagined it to be," Jensen said Tuesday.

In the first 28 days, officers made 676 arrests, Jensen said. "Most of those are status offenses - truancy, smoking, runaways, ungovernables."

Twenty runaways were found and 530 truant students turned over to their parents and schools.

"We have had far more parents call and say, `Thank you for letting me know what my kids are doing,' " he said.

Teams of two officers patrol the central business district, particularly the malls, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Officers, depending on the circumstances, can issue citations, make arrests, transport youths to parents or the detention center.

"All of the parents I've talked to, except one, have been tickled to death" with the program, said Sgt. Bill Brown, with the department's youth division.

Some of the more serious arrests officers have made include possession of concealed knives and guns; aggravated assault; drug possession; forgery; sexual assault; burglary; possession of stolen property; auto theft; shoplifting; and providing alcohol to minors.

"We seem to be a real success, especially in our malls, in reducing the juvenile crime downtown," said Jensen, adding store security officers report daytime shoplifting has dropped significantly since the program began.

The program is the first of its kind in the area, and Jensen is preparing to reapply for an additional $28,000 in federal funds administered through the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

Jensen said a "rock-bottom figure" of 43 percent of downtown crime is committed by juveniles who hang around the malls with nothing to do but get in trouble. Now, he said, word is out for teens to stay away from downtown if they are truant from school.

"The long-term support networks are no longer capable of operating," he said.

And officers like participating in the program. "They love it. They're making a big difference."

Jensen said officers stopped two teenagers for truancy. After some discussion, the patrolmen found out the girl was pregnant and the boy was pawning property to pay for an abortion. The two are now married and will continue their schooling.

"The guys really felt good about that on a personal level because these kids were making a decision on fear. They were afraid to tell their parents. They weren't aware of their options," Jensen said, adding, "These are neat kids."