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SALT LAKE CITY — There's no debate that neighborhoods surrounding the homeless shelter have built a reputation as a hub for drug dealing. There are hundreds of homeless people on sidewalks all day, which makes for the perfect cover for dealers.
One narcotics officer said dealers will use the homeless as "camouflage."
KSL Investigators watched in an unmarked police car with detectives as undercover officers entered the area posing as buyers.
A squad of undercover narcotics officers blended into an area notorious for drug deals in Salt Lake City. The detectives from the Salt Lake City Police Department conducted a police operation focused on arresting dealers.
"They just did a deal right in front of us," one of the officers pointed out.
Dealers catch a city bus to the area, while a steady stream of buyers converge on foot and by car to get their next fix for as cheap as $10.
"We've got people coming from not just around the valley, but all over the adjoining counties because it's so easy to buy dope here," the officer explained.
But recently, the drug problem in Salt Lake City has exploded.
"We seized 82 percent more drugs, heroin, cocaine, marijuana," said Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown.
Brown's crime analysis unit tracks data on a weekly basis and compiled an annual report that reveals a staggering trend. Last year, Salt Lake City police officers seized almost 330,000 doses of drugs — an 82 percent spike over the previous year.
Even more troubling, since 2012, overdose calls to 911 have increased 124 percent. Brown said deaths went up 52 percent last year.
Travis Whittaker spent 12 years addicted to prescription painkillers. "I would buy 40 or 50 at a time," he said.
Now in recovery, he works as an outreach coordinator for Cold Creek Behavioral Health, which is a treatment center.
Whittaker often visits the neighborhoods surrounding the homeless shelter to check in on addicts and offer hope. He knows how the cycle of drug abuse destroys families and communities.
"I was lying, stealing, getting arrested, making bad choices," Whittaker said. "My behavior completely changed. It consumed everything."
But these days, narcotics officers are dealing with a roadblock in their efforts to stop the cycle.
A year ago, the Salt Lake County Sheriff's office implemented a jail policy as a way to manage inmate population.
Last month, a KSL Investigators report documented officers' frustrations. Officers feel their hands are tied because the jail policy no longer accepts numerous misdemeanor offenses.
"You can go break into that car down there and I could watch you do it and I'll get the stuff back but you wouldn't be going to jail," said Salt Lake City police Sgt. Scott Mourtgos.
And someone caught buying illegal drugs — even in front of officers — can't be booked into jail.
"We can't make it difficult for them to come down here and buy dope because we can't arrest them. There's no punishment," the undercover officer said.
Now, if police stop a buyer they can take the drugs away and the buyer gets to walk away.
"Jail can be a front door to help and treatment," Brown said.
Data shows that before jail restrictions took effect, the Salt Lake Police Department had almost 4,700 drug cases. But since the restrictions took effect, the number has soared to more than 6,200 cases.
"There's no end to this cycle and that's a problem," Brown said.