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Police weigh new facility for intoxicated offenders

| Friday, Jan. 24, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

The city plans to open a shelter to hold and treat people who are drunk or on drugs because the Allegheny County Jail can't hold them when they're arrested.

Pittsburgh City Council on Thursday approved setting aside $120,000 for the Public Inebriate Program. Police could take people — mostly homeless — there when they are arrested only on charges related to abuse of drugs or alcohol. Medical personnel at the shelter then could determine if someone needed additional treatment.

"We really do not have a place to take them unless they commit another crime," said City Councilwoman Barbara Burns, whose district includes the North Side. "This is a serious liability issue."

In 2001, city police issued at least 450 citations for public drunkenness, said Tammy Ewin, a spokeswoman with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

City officials first want to operate a shelter as part of a one-year pilot program. The program also could include substance abuse counseling for repeat offenders.

Under a federal court order, police are not permitted to take people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol to the county jail until they are cleared by a medical authority, said Calvin Lightfoot, warden of the county jail.

Lightfoot said this issue is not only a legal matter for him, but also a philosophical one. "I have big problems with, philosophically and humanely, locking up a person with a disease, and that is what alcoholism is, a disease. I think we need to treat these people, not lock them up."

The jail does not have the facilities to treat intoxicated people, Lightfoot said. The Salvation Army has some facilities to treat these individuals, but most city homeless shelters do not.

Because of the lack of facilities to take people who are intoxicated or on drugs, Pittsburgh police will only cite them for the offense, Ewin said. If a person is arrested for another offense and public intoxication is added to the charge, police can take the individual to jail.

A person going into diabetic shock can easily be mistaken for an individual under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Lightfoot said. Police are not trained to know the difference between the two, which is why medical attention is required as a first step, not jail.

The city would contract with an organization to operate the shelter, said Susan Scheuring, community development program supervisor for the Department of City Planning.

"I like to see that we are contracting the service out to an agency like the Salvation Army," City Councilman Sala Udin said. "They are not equipped to handle this at the jail."

Plans for the shelter are still in the works, Scheuring said. Parts of the program still being considered are treatment and whether the shelters will be open 24 hours a day or during set hours.

No target date has been set for starting the program.

"We are past the days of throwing drunks in a drunk tank," Burns said. "It is a different day and we need different solutions."

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