SALT LAKE CITY — The shoplifting suspect at the Rite Aid on 150 North and 900 West didn’t look out of the ordinary. He was a male, white, with medium-long brown hair, about 30 years old. He was wearing a puffy coat and winter boots to keep warm on a recent December morning.
But Joe Cyr, a patrol sergeant for the Salt Lake Police Department, sensed something different about this man, something that told him he needed help.
“Obviously you’re stealing for a reason. Is it a drug habit?” Cyr asked the suspect.
“Yes,” he answered. The man spoke clearly despite a neurological condition that caused his head and neck to twitch. He had started self-medicating with heroin after doctor-prescribed medications for the condition became too expensive, Cyr learned.
Cyr wrote the man a citation for shoplifting. But instead of taking him to jail, he referred him to social workers at the Community Connection Center, Salt Lake City Police Department's answer to homelessness, drug abuse and mental health problems in the city. Cyr gave the man the center’s business card and told him to go there for help with addiction treatment and employment.
With card in hand, the man was on his way.
Cyr’s response to the shoplifter is one example of how police in Salt Lake City can refer suspects to addiction treatment services instead of taking them to jail. With six Utahns dying every week from an opioid overdose in 2015, according to the Utah Department of Health, law enforcement officers like Cyr recognize the need to help people with addiction instead of punishing them.
But there are some key differences between the way Salt Lake City deals with drug offenders and the way other cities have successfully approached the problem.
Seattle is one of 11 cities where a program called LEAD****—Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion — has helped hundreds of drug-addicted individuals get connected with life-saving resources like housing and medical treatment. Instead of sending low-level drug offenders in Seattle to jail, they are assigned case managers, who “meet them where they are” and help them make changes in their lives on their own timeline.
Both Seattle’s and Salt Lake City’s programs employ social workers who help clients get the services they need. But one of the main differences is that Salt Lake City’s program is a short-term referral service while the Seattle program offers long-term intensive case management.
Additionally, LEAD in Seattle is a “pre-arrest diversion program,” meaning that suspects are given an option between enrolling in the program and being charged with a crime. Those who enroll are not arrested or given a citation. In Salt Lake City, police can refer suspects to the Community Connection Center, but they typically still cite the individual.
As Community Connection Center staff seek to make a difference in the lives of people in Salt Lake City, some, including Lana Dalton, the center’s director, would like to see the program expand and become more like Seattle's.
In 2016, the Salt Lake City Police Department opened the Community Connection Center, which occupies the first floor of a boxy red and gray building at 511 W. 200 South, across the street from the Road Home shelter. Funded by the city, the center is a one-stop shop for people to access social services of all kinds. A police unit is housed right next door, and social workers from the center can go out with police to meet people on site, or police can drop people off at the center instead of taking them to jail.
The center’s lobby is filled with about a dozen chairs, and during operating hours the seats are filled with people who have made appointments and are waiting to be seen by one of the center’s four case managers or three therapists. The staff take a client-driven approach, letting clients dictate what kind of services they want to receive, which might be anything from getting an ID to signing up for Medicaid.
In 2016, Salt Lake City also experimented with a program called Operation Diversion, where law enforcement, public attorneys and treatment providers coordinated to assess individuals taken into custody and get those who qualified into addiction treatment that same day.
The program took place over three days, and of the 113 people who were assessed, 68 were sent to treatment, 43 were sent to jail and two were sent to the hospital.
Now, since the funding and treatment beds for Operation Diversion have been used up, people in Salt Lake City suffering from addiction have to wait anywhere from several weeks to several months for residential rehab.
“It’s really difficult for someone to hang onto the motivation they have in that moment for so long,” said Dalton.
But the Community Connection Center doesn’t have enough staff to go out and look for clients who come in to request services but never come back.
“Some people, we’ll see them one time and never again,” said social worker Jessica Waters. “We don’t go out of our way to follow-up.”
And people who get dropped off at the center by police often choose to leave. “There’s nothing to stop them from walking out,” Waters said.
On the other hand, people referred to Seattle's program are incentivized to participate, because if they don’t, they will be charged with the crime they were caught committing.
LEAD’s 15 full-time case managers, who each handle about 25 clients each, stick with the participants for as long as they need help. And because of their limited case loads, they are able to regularly follow up with clients and go out into the streets to look for them when they don’t show up to appointments.
Outreach in Salt Lake City
Unlike the police officers who go out with LEAD social workers in Seattle, the officers who work with social workers in Salt Lake City are not actually responsible for apprehending people committing crimes. In Salt Lake City, the police who work with the Community Connection Center are more focused on outreach.
On an overcast morning in November, detective Mike McKenna and social worker Jessica Waters walk through dewy grass toward a grove of trees behind the Day-Riverside Library in Rose Park. As they get closer, the outline of a tent becomes visible behind the vegetation. Then more items appear: a shopping cart, a bike, a clothesline, a saw. Finally, the figure of a man.
Just 100 yards away, children on a field trip to the library laugh and play in the grass, oblivious to the homeless encampment.
McKenna is part of the Homeless Outreach Services Team, which is housed next to the Community Connection Center. He often pairs up with social workers from the center to respond to police calls involving homeless individuals or visit people on the streets to tell them about services. He also works closely with another police unit that responds to mental health crises. The units' focus on homelessness and mental health is slightly different from LEAD, which was created specifically for people suffering from addiction.
This campsite is home to an unlikely group of friends. A 62-year-old man who struggles to walk, a 44-year-old woman who peers out warily from the tent, unwilling to reveal herself, and a fresh-faced 20-year-old man, originally from Russia.
Waters and McKenna talk casually with the group about medical help and food stamps, but they don’t mention addiction treatment for fear the group will respond defensively. The older man could be eligible to receive more than $700 a month through Social Security, Waters explains.
“What’s the No. 1 thing you need right now?” Waters asks the younger man after some conversation.
“Pizza,” he says.
The whole exchange lasts about 20 minutes. Before leaving, Waters leaves them with a business card for the Community Connection Center.
Back in the patrol car, Waters and McKenna discuss whether they think the people will actually access the services.
“Maybe the older guy, but not the young one, or the woman,” Waters guesses, based on her experience and observation.
Even though most people don’t follow through on their own, McKenna explains that the outreach team’s goal is simply to make sure people on the street know what services are available to them.
Should Salt Lake City get LEAD?
With the well-integrated police and social worker model already in place at the Community Connection Center, Salt Lake City is in a good position to implement a pre-arrest diversion program more like Seattle's, according to Dalton.
Dalton wants to move in that direction, as do many of the police officers who work there.
“We want to do more outreach and move to a model that’s more like LEAD,” she said. “But due to staffing, we can’t.”
Sgt. Cyr describes the social workers at the Community Connection Center as “the most compassionate, helpful people I’ve ever met in my life.”
“But for the demand that’s out there we need at least twice as many social workers and more money to fund the program,” Cyr said.
In Seattle, LEAD got started with just four caseworkers. In the first year the program cost $435,000, which was funded by private foundation grants such as the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
The LEAD program doesn’t require treatment beds to operate either. Even in Seattle, there is not enough treatment capacity for the people who need it, according to Cathy Speelman, LEAD program manager.
The Seattle program engages people by helping them get other resources like food and clothing, identification or medical care, until they are personally ready to seek addiction treatment. Then, while their clients wait for a treatment spot to open up, LEAD case managers continue to follow-up with and support those individuals, Speelman said.
The most difficult part of starting LEAD, according to its founders, was coordinating the different groups of people involved: police officers, social workers and public prosecutors.1 comment on this story
“These agencies typically don’t communicate well,” said Kris Nyrop, a LEAD representative from Seattle. “Once everyone was working together, it was amazing what we were able to accomplish.”
To help make sure everyone was on the same page, Seattle started having meetings every two weeks where police, social workers and prosecutors meet to discuss LEAD clients and how best to handle their cases.
“It’s a really great model, and I’m impressed with what they’re doing,” said Dalton. “I would really like to go in that direction.”