12 things CHS heard at Sawant’s Law Enforcement Diversion forum

There is funding enough to start the process of bringing a successful alternative to old-school drug policing to Capitol Hill and the Central District. But the future of the movement is murky.

Thursday night, City Council District 3 representative Kshama Sawant and the Capitol Hill Community Council held a forum at Miller Community Center in Capitol Hill on the Law Enforcement Diversion Program, or LEAD, and how to expand and implement it in her council district encompassing Capitol Hill and the Central District. The forum was approached as an opportunity to discuss mass incarceration and how programs like LEAD fit into broader efforts to roll back the impacts of the war on drugs and tough love policing.

Featured panelists included one of the original architects of the lead program, Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, LEAD program supervisor Najja Morris, Scott Lindsey, the mayor’s Public Safety and Police Reform Advisor, Turina James, a LEAD participant and former heroin user, along with Sheley Secrest of the NAACP and executive director of the Gender Justice League and statehouse candidate for the 43rd Legislative District, Danni Askini.

While praise for the LEAD program was abundant, speakers routinely stressed the importance of building on LEAD’s successes with more investment to ensure Seattle’s budding experiment in harm-reduction policing doesn’t fade away.

Last year, Mayor Ed Murray allocated one-time funding in his 2016 budget to help expand LEAD into Capitol Hill. Additional expansions and enhancement of LEAD services will require more money.

Advocates said that LEAD needs to be expanded equitably into areas like South Seattle and the Central District, and that more robust services for LEAD like housing for participants who are still actively using drugs is needed to fully realize the program’s potential. In line with her usual rhetoric, Sawant framed societal problems of drug addiction, mass incarceration, and homelessness as systemic ills of capitalism, and called on the audience to advocate for LEAD and other services and to “hold every politician at city hall accountable.”

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Here’s more of what CHS heard at Thursday night’s forum.

  • “There are activists who may be uncomfortable with the authority that LEAD places in individual officers to decide who is good for LEAD and who is not,” said Sawant. “Remember that SPD is still under investigation of the consent decree of the U.S. Justice Department. We have to remember that we are not arguing for this program as a license to whitewash the systemic issues we have in the police department.”
  • “We also must recognize that even if the LEAD policies were perfectly applied, the establishment and big business would still find ways to work the system at the community’s expense,” said Sawant.
  • “This clip makes the same mistake that the Frontline film that aired in February did in situating LEAD as a response to the so-called heroin or opioid epidemic,” said Daugaard in reference to an ABC news video report on LEAD that Sawant played at the beginning of the forum. “It’s very important for people here in Seattle know that LEAD came out of a reaction of the over incarceration of black people for crack dealing and crack use overwhelmingly,” Daugaard added.
  • “The same officers making referrals to LEAD are the officers who made the most drug arrests in the high water mark of the war on drugs in Seattle,” said Daugaard. “Folks used to run away from them. Today people walk or run toward that [police] van, flag down those same officers down and talk honestly and openly about what is going on in their life trusting that the use of that information will be constructive, humane, rational, and legitimate.”
  • “Taking that negative relationship and turning it into something positive is truly transformational, and the mayor is very excited about it,” said Scott Lindsey in reference to the changed role of police officers in neighborhoods utilizing LEAD.
  • “Relationships are the core foundation for what we do at the LEAD program. and when we build relationships with people, we recognize that people are human,” said LEAD supervisor Najja Morris.
  • “Their [SPD] role should not be minimized at all,” said Morris. “These officers are grinding out here for our LEAD clients. They know their names, their stories, and the pain they’ve gone through. We tease them sometimes and call them social workers.”
  • “Black people don’t know that we’re that poor in Seattle, but we are,” said King County Council member Larry Gossett. “55% of black kids in Seattle live in households that live in households that make poverty wages and then we act surprised when they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.”
  • “I can’t imagine being able to see LEAD on Capitol Hill, and then going down a few streets and seeing Tyrone on the corner still begging for treatment,” said Sheley Secrest.
  • “What we heard about LEAD was that young people who were users who had experience with LEAD thought that the officers in Belltown were a lot nicer,” said Danni Askini, citing public feedback received at last year’s town hall on LGBTQ hate crimes. “Young [LGBTQ] people who are on the streets who are using [drugs], who are subject to hate crimes need to have those relationships with police.”
  • “As proud as I am of all of those people and what we’ve been able to collectively do, this thing has to work, and it has to work pretty soon,” said Daugaard. “It would be a lot better if we openly admitted that we want to and intend to house active drug users.”
  • “If everyone would give it a chance, stick with it, let it build, we can get this done and get people some help,” said LEAD participant Turina James.
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