Homelessness Forces Cops to ‘Triage’ Public Safety Issues, President’s Panel Told

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Dealing with homeless individuals presents police with difficult choices between ensuring public safety and helping find appropriate services, a presidential panel was told.

“Law enforcement is consistently put in the position of triaging homelessness, which often is a symptom of underlying mental health and/or substance use issues,” said Chief Brian Redd of the Utah Bureau of Investigation.

Redd was addressing the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which  held hearings via teleconference last week on social problems affecting public safety, including homelessness and substance abuse, the Justice Department reports.

Redd described Operation Rio Grande, an initiative centered in the Rio Grande District of downtown Salt Lake City near Utah’s 1,000-bed homeless shelter.  The shelter was overwhelmed by larger numbers of individuals who had set up an encampment nearby, which turned into an open-air drug market and was marked by violence and public health concerns.

The operation  deployed a three-pronged approach: law enforcement, treatment and housing, and dignity of work – designed to help individuals become self-sufficient.

The commission heard testimony on federal programming on social issues from Christopher Patterson of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Region IX, Dr. Matt Miller a suicide prevention expert for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and Dr. Robert Marbut, Jr. of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

A separate hearing on substance abuse was addressed by Carson Fox of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, Mike Sena of the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA); Middlesex County, Ma., Sheriff Peter Koutoujian; Sue DeLacy of the Orange County (Ca.) Probation Department, U.S. Attorney Michael Stuart of the Southern District of West Virginia.

Sena suggested that HIDTA’s ODMap, which tracks real-time overdose data, be adapted nationwide. The commission said that audio recordings and transcripts of the hearings will be posted online later.

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