They seem a little more willing to talk to us over a cup of coffee. I had one guy tell me 'It's nice to see you guys as people, not just someone behind a badge.' This program gives us that opportunity. —Salt Lake Police Lt. Mike Ross

SALT LAKE CITY — Call it doughnut diplomacy.

This week, the Salt Lake City Police Department has served free coffee and doughnuts in the Depot District as part of its "Coffee With a Cop" initiative.

On Thursday morning, the community coffee klatch was open for business on the north end of Pioneer Park.

"Hot coffee and fresh doughnuts, you can't beat that in the morning," said Scott, who is living at The Road Home shelter and identified himself only with his first name.

"It's a change. At least they (police) aren't harassing anybody."

Then again, Scott said he has appreciated recent enforcement efforts in the Pioneer Park neighborhood that have pushed drug dealers out of the area and may soon get a boost from a new apartment building planned for the area.

"Ever since they started doing this this week, the Spice heads have been gone."

"Coffee With a Cop" is not just about free doughnuts. It's part of an ongoing effort by police and other community partners to create community and address festering issues in and around Pioneer Park, said Salt Lake Police Lt. Mike Ross.

"They seem a little more willing to talk to us over a cup of coffee," said Ross. "I had one guy tell me 'It's nice to see you guys as people, not just someone behind a badge.' This program gives us that opportunity."

Providing help

Coffee With a Cop is sponsored by the Pioneer Park Coalition, a grass-roots organization that includes homeless services providers, area business owners, police officers, prosecutors and government representatives, law enforcement and other community leaders. The last event is Friday at 10 a.m. in the park in conjunction with a press conference to recap the week's efforts by police.

The coalition, which formed last fall and is privately funded, has a growing membership and is attempting to address issues in the neighborhood through education, outreach and making recommendations to government and nonprofit partners.

Earlier this week, a small group of coalition members visited the Food and Care Coalition's new facility in Provo, which provides transitional housing for men and women and a wide array of day services, many of which are provided by community partners, said coalition director Scott Howell.

About six months into the creation of the coalition, Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott offers this assessment of its work: "My spirits are getting buoyed. The team seems to be coalescing. I do see the pie growing. I see a convergence."

At a minimum, it's a growing conversation among unlikely partners — business owners who worry about the safety of their employees and customers, and service providers that feed, house and provide medical care to homeless men, women and families.

"I've met so many good people here who have fallen on hard times. One bad illness can take you down on your knees," Ross said.

Fighting crime

But there is also a criminal element that is toxic to the entire neighborhood. "As soon as we bring officers in, we literally watch people leave the area," Ross said.

Mike Stransky, a Salt Lake architect whose firm recently joined the coalition, said the past 18 months have been particularly challenging.

Stransky said he and his partners at GSBS Architects are invested in the success of the area. The firm owns a building in the neighborhood and it has also performed pro bono work for the nearby St. Vincent de Paul Center, which provides walk-in services and meals for the homeless and other needy people.

"We'd like to see the neighborhood thrive as it has in the past. I don't know where we're going, but we're here," he said.

Salt Lake police and prosecutors are asking area business owners, service providers and residents to share more information to help them investigate and prosecute crimes.

For instance, police are encouraging businesses and nonprofit agencies in the neighborhood to share with the department the IP addresses of their private surveillance systems to give the department "additional eyes" in the area, Salt Lake Police Deputy Chief Mike Brown said during meeting of the Pioneer Park Coalition Wednesday afternoon.

Salt Lake City's lead prosecutor, Padma Veeru-Collings, urged people attending the coalition meeting to fill out victim impact statements to help prosecutors obtain the maximum sentences for offenders.

The statements, she said, can mean the difference between probation and a jail sentence.

Apartment project

As the coalition's efforts continue, development around the park is ongoing. A Utah homebuilder is expected to soon announce details of a 119-unit apartment project west of Pioneer Park. The project will be financed through a mix of private and public lending, according to Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City documents.

"The Applicant is seeking RDA funds because they have encountered challenges in securing financing from private sources due to the location of the project," the document states.

Howell says the coalition's work "is a big undertaking," but he and other partners are committed to making Pioneer Park "family friendly" while creating an environment that supports businesses and service providers.

The Depot District, like any neighborhood, has its problems, Ross said.

"We all have to work together to solve them," he said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com