The Shakopee police force is small — 28 sworn officers patrol the city's streets. But it is punching above its weight in the innovation department, with a strategy for dealing with addicts that deserves a close look by police departments across Minnesota.

Shakopee residents who want to end their addiction to drugs or alcohol can seek help at, of all places, the Shakopee Police Department. If they are found to be good candidates and demonstrate financial need, the department will pay their treatment costs.

But that's not the end of it. Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate says the department intends to have a relationship with those they help, even after they're out of rehab. "They need to trust us," he said, "but we want to create another support network for them. Every single day, my officers deal with someone under the influence. If we can touch even a few people, that makes us a stronger community. History tells us that just locking people up isn't the answer."

Tate said he launched the program after learning of a similar effort in Gloucester, Mass., which has spread to more than 100 departments in nearly two dozen states. Shakopee is the first in Minnesota, but it shouldn't be the last. Even beyond the value of treatment itself, this program may offer a unique way for police to change the way they are perceived in their communities. It may also help move us toward a model that seeks to help addicts with their disease rather than punish them.

Shakopee's program is tailored to its community's needs. No one has to turn themselves in, and they need not be facing arrest. Some individuals are recommended by officers, when they find someone they think can benefit, but anyone in the city can apply. Unlike other programs that tap into a national foundation, the Shakopee department is using its asset-forfeiture funds — money and other valuables acquired during drug busts or other asset seizures — for what Tate calls its scholarship pool. That wording is important, because it gives an aspirational lift to something that has in the past been stigmatized. And they've made their own connections with two treatment programs.

Tate says his officers have been eager to participate in something positive. Some officers are preparing a gift basket for one person in the program who is due to give birth soon. He said people in the community have thanked him privately for extending help to families wrestling with the demons of drug and alcohol addiction.

With little money, and virtually on its own, this small, dedicated department is leading on an innovative way for officers to "serve and protect" their community. Not every addict will succeed; some will continue getting arrested. But as other police departments look for ways to build community relations and curb mounting arrests for drugs, drunken driving, thefts and domestic assaults, Shakopee's program shows that police officers can be a welcome resource for those seeking a crime-free, substance-free path.