SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Police Department's new social work program is intended to "balance" stepped-up law enforcement efforts in the Rio Grande neighborhood with referrals to agencies that can help people who are homeless and those addicted to drugs.
"It’s going to balance our increased enforcement," said Deputy Police Chief Josh Scharman, who leads the department's strategic deployment unit.
Drug seizures are up 50 percent in the Rio Grande neighborhood, while Part 1 offenses — homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault and arson, among others — are down 35 percent since June 4, according to data presented recently to the Pioneer Park Coalition.
"We're not going to lift the foot off the gas on this," Scharman said.
One of the great challenges of the police department's Rio Grande initiative is ferreting out lawbreakers who hide among the truly needy, he said.
"There are people victimizing our homeless. We will sort that out. Once we get them incarcerated, we're going to find the people that need help and make sure they get help," Scharman said.
The department has hired Lana Dalton, a clinical social worker from First Step House, a substance abuse treatment program that serves residential and outpatient clients, as manager of the social work program. The program is the first in the country, Scharman said.
"A lot of (police) departments have social workers and psychiatrists that work for them, but actually they’re usually internal. They’re for cops. This will be the first one that their whole job is to extend outreach. So they’ll work with our service providers and to help give options for treatment, especially for addicts. That’s what we’re looking for," he said.
Acting Police Chief Mike Brown, who was named to the position in June following the resignation of longtime Chief Chris Burbank, said heroin remains the drug of choice in the Rio Grande District.
When people take drugs, "it rewires your brain," Brown said.
"They are prisoner to that drug, and they will do anything for that drug."
Arresting and prosecuting addicts doesn't curb crime in the long run, he said.
While Brown said he has "no mercy" for drug traffickers, addicts need treatment, not only to salvage their lives but to reduce recidivism.
Addicts who go to jail or prison have a 70 percent recidivism rate compared with those who enter treatment, who have a 40 percent recidivism rate.
"Forty percent, that's amazing. We've got to do something different," Brown said.
Scharman said the police department is working with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on initiatives that are alternatives to incarceration.
"But you’re addicted and you have a medical condition — addiction. It’s a medical condition. We as a police department are going to extend options for people," Scharman said.
People who sell drugs, however, will go to jail, he said.
Nicole Thomas, chief executive officer of Gateway Bridal and Prom, said better conditions in the area are long overdue.
"My personal sentiments are we have not only an issue with a homeless population across the street not getting the help and services they need to enter into recovery, we also have a drug trafficking issue," Thomas said. "Until we separate the two from each other, I don't see how can help our homeless population."
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