By the end of July, Capitol Hill police officers will be able to refer drug users to treatment programs — not jail. Along with a visit from a touring example of a safe drug consumption site, the month is bringing a few steps of progress in breaking drug addiction cycles that have challenged the neighborhood for decades.
In recent weeks, East Precinct officers have been trained to participate in the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. LEAD now joins the already functioning Multi-Disciplinary Team program on Capitol Hill in giving law enforcement new options and resources for dealing with addiction. Officials are looking at ways the two programs can work together.
According to Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, all East Precinct police officers will be trained to participate in LEAD by the end of the month. Until now only West Precinct officers have been able to recommend people for LEAD participation. There was initial talk of only expanding the program to Capitol Hill, but “Capitol Hill community leaders actually pushed for inclusion of the rest of the precinct on racial justice grounds,” because, according to Daugaard, community leaders felt that parts of the East Precinct with a higher percentage of minorities than Capitol Hill should also benefit from the program. Daugaard said she anticipates that once East Precinct officers have been trained, “there will probably be significantly more referrals” for the LEAD program.
Mayor Ed Murray announced the planned expansion of the MDT and LEAD programs to Capitol Hill in fall 2015. MDT was expanded to Capitol Hill in January, and Metropolitan Improvement District vice president Dave Willard said so far results have been “pretty encouraging.” Outreach workers for MDT joined East Precinct officers on patrols, and now those officers are being trained to do some outreach of their own.
Earlier this month, Daugaard and Willard presented to the City Council’s Human Services and Public Health committee on the expansion and ways that LEAD and MDT could work more closely together. While one idea floated prior to the meeting was combining the two programs into one, both Daugaard and Willard said that does not make sense.
“It’s quite a different engagement style,” said Daugaard. According to Daugaard, MDT works best for people who are able to work within an “accountability framework,” meaning they are expected to do things like attend regular check-in meetings. Daugaard said that when most LEAD candidates are first referred, they are unlikely to be able to do that.
Instead, the presenters recommended that LEAD and MDT continue to improve coordination with one another. In addition to representatives from each program attending each other’s meetings, “I would anticipate some joint outreach time on the street,” said Willard.
Meanwhile, another potential public health intervention for chronic drug users is making the rounds in Seattle. A mock safe consumption site for drug users set up by VOCAL Washington is making stops on Capitol Hill this week. The site targets users who inject and provides low-threshold access to a supervised space to consume pre-obtained illicit drugs, clean equipment, emergency care in the case of overdoses, and referrals to healthcare and drug treatment services if desired by the user.
On Monday, the site was set up in Cal Anderson from noon to 7 PM. Advocate Ashley Hempelmann said safe consumption sites cut down on transferrals of drug users to hospitals and public disorder. There are no cities in the U.S. currently using safe consumption sites.
VOCAL’s Patricia Sully said the pop-up site in the middle a city park is a way to make it easy for lots of people to learn more about how the resource would work — not demonstrate an actual working consumption site.
“If we were to have an actual supervised consumption space, it would be most likely co-located with an existing service provider,” Sully said. “Not a tent that pops up in your local park but rather just part of the infrastructure. So that when somebody goes into say the needle exchange, they might be able to pick up clean syringes and, then, instead of going out to the dirty alley, actually go to a space where they could use those syringes in a clean, safe, sanitary way with medical supervision.”
“The main purpose of a drug consumption facility — no matter where it is — is to offer a set of protective factors for people who are using substances to help them use in a way that’s less likely to result in death through overdose or morbidity and mortality over a longer term through things such as HIV or hepatitis,” another VOCAL advocate, Greg Scott, said.
If nothing else, Scott’s argument about cleaning up and keeping dirty needles out of places like Cal Anderson might sway you.
“It’s really important we do things like this to protect the health and maintain the longevity of the people who are using the substances,” Scott said. “It’s also a protective factor for the community at large because people who use drugs are mixing and mingling with all of us all of the time. The most conspicuous way that communities see that interaction is through paraphernalia, literally. This is the kind of thing that can actually contain that litter and keep it inside.”
CHS reported on how a consumption site could eventually come Capitol Hill here earlier this year.
If you would like to learn more about VOCAL Washington’s safe consumption site, the group is holding an exhibit and film screening Tuesday night from 6 to 9 PM at 12th Ave Arts.
With possible community — if not legislative — progress toward creating a consumption site in Seattle, and the LEAD and MDT programs now more firmly in place across Capitol Hill, there is more hope of breaking some of the cycles that have made junkies in squat houses and needles in the bushes a part of day to day life in Central Seattle.
LEAD was launched in Seattle in 2011 and is part of a trend in transitioning away from traditional enforcement in cities across the country. It works by placing drug use suspects into counseling before they’re booked into jail. Typically, an officer will call a LEAD outreach worker to assess a drug user they think may be a good candidate for the program (no warrants or violent criminal history). The outreach worker then schedules a crisis assessment offered through Evergreen Treatment Services. Results from the program have been promising. LEAD participants were 87% less likely to be incarcerated after entry than those who didn’t participate, according to a 2-year study (PDF) of the program recently completed by the University of Washington. They also had 58% lower odds of a subsequent arrest. The Public Defender Association and the Capitol Hill Community Council were among those advocating for the program to expand beyond downtown.
Daugaard said there is more to be done including a need for housing solutions for people in LEAD who have a criminal history. “We have people who are doing really well in the program except they’re living in a tent,” said Daugaard.