SLCPD tries a new tactic in Rio Grande: embedding social workers with cops

SALT LAKE CITY -- In a new tactic to address the problems in the troubled Rio Grande neighborhood, the police department has hired social workers to help people in crisis here.

The Salt Lake City Police Department hired six social workers to work out of the Community Connection Center at the corner of 500 West and 200 South. People can walk in off the street and get help for everything from transportation, job search assistance to substance abuse treatment. There's even a spot to pick up mail.

"Being embedded in law enforcement, we are able to connect the dots because we have expected our police officers to be social workers," said Lana Dalton, the social work manager at the center.

The program, championed by Salt Lake City Council Chairman Stan Penfold, is the first of its kind in the nation.

"There was really nothing I was able to model this after," Dalton told FOX 13.

A sign welcomes people inside the Community Connection Center in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

The center is in a space that was abandoned by Spy Hop Productions, a non-profit that worked with children on video productions, that worried about safety as conditions in the neighborhood worsened. Since July, the center has helped over 3,000 people, Dalton said. Chief Brown said he believed it has been a big success, but six social workers are not enough.

"It’s a drop in the bucket. We could use another 10," he told FOX 13 on Thursday. "But it’s a start. I think it’s a model, it’s very unique. I think it’s on the cutting edge."

The idea of embedding social workers with law enforcement raised eyebrows, even with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

"At first, I was like, 'Why do we want to do that?' But it makes total sense when you’re in an environment like this," the mayor said as she toured the facility on Thursday.

Some have worried that with social workers in what is essentially a police precinct, the homeless or those who have substance abuse problems may not be as open to sharing their problems. Dalton said there are confidentiality rules that have prevented social workers from even sharing details with the officers they share office space with. Still, she said, people are not afraid to walk in and ask for help.

"We’ve had over 3,000 people come in our doors voluntarily which tells me there’s a definite need in the community," she said.

People camp on Rio Grande street in Salt Lake City. (Image by Evan Huddle, FOX 13 News)

The Community Connection Center is one of several approaches Salt Lake City has tried to address the problems in the Rio Grande neighborhood. Even as the mayor and police chief participated in an open house on Thursday, a FOX 13 reporter and photographer observed drug deals taking place on a nearby corner.

Some have proposed tougher methods for the neighborhood. Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder has suggested a homeless camp in a vacant lot, inmate labor to clean up the streets, parking restrictions, more scrutiny on panhandlers and tickets out of town for those who want it.

Mayor Biskupsi said she had seen the sheriff's proposal and referred it to a Collective Impact Board that deals with homeless issues for any further consideration.

"Some of it is very questionable about its constitutionality," she told FOX 13. "All I can say is that I find there’s more value in bringing in a proposal like that to the teams that are working together to move in a new direction."

The mayor said she planned to focus on other things, including affordable housing (to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place) as new shelters are being built in Salt Lake City and in the county. She also wanted to expand another approach, "Operation Diversion," that has showed success. That was a sweep that rounded up people accused of dealing and using drugs in the neighborhood. Dealers went to jail, and police offered users a choice: rehab or jail.

"What we know is we need this and that is a key piece to our success in transitioning from the current service model to the new resource center model," Mayor Biskupski said.