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Seattle sorting out how to pay for expansion of drug diversion program beyond Capitol Hill

Transitioning the emphasis from arrest to treatment and services when it comes to addiction, mental illness, and homelessness is slowly changing policing and the city’s connections to its streets in downtown and parts of Capitol Hill. The hopes to expand Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion to the rest of the East Precinct now hinges on the process underway at City Hall to shape Seattle’s 2018 budget.

Tracy Gillespie, who handles LEAD’s East Precinct referrals, and LEAD’s operations advisor Najja Morris said the program’s biggest hurdle is funding, year after year. The program needs more case managers. Their hope is to expand throughout Seattle by 2019, which Morris said would require around $4 million. Right now, LEAD is lined up for $1 million out of the city budget.

The program has been working in Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct — Capitol Hill, the Central District, and Little Saigon — since last year. But it’s been Capitol Hill centric because the program rolled out to SPD’s bicycle officers, who focus on the Hill, and not patrol officers in cars. Now, LEAD is working toward CD and Saigon expansion.

“It’s been really great to see a different demographic come into the program,” said Gillespie. “They tend to be younger, but a lot of them have aged out of the teen and young adult services, so they’re in between being a young person and being an adult.”

But there is uncertainty about how much funding will be available for the initiative in coming years.

LEAD is a pilot program within King County, diverting low-level offenders from jail before they’re even booked. In particular, it’s a program that connects community services (housing, addiction, mental health, the criminal justice system) and siphons through them to make a space for individuals who would otherwise taint their record with something minor but constant.

A major component of funding for Seattle’s part in the program could be the proposed Housing, Outreach and Mass-Entry Shelter head tax. The proposal to tax the top 10% grossing businesses around five cents per hour per full-time employee faces staunch opposition

While the majority of LEAD’s participants downtown are homeless people of color, it’s a different story for East Precinct. Gillespie’s referrals are mostly younger Caucasians who tend to use meth and a little bit of heroin on Capitol Hill. For the International District, she said there’s more Vietnamese men who have been homeless for several decades using cocaine and crack.

“The Central District is still working into community partners and getting involved,” Gillespie said. “The bikes don’t go to the Central District so we haven’t gotten any referrals from that area just yet. We’re all very anxious to become extremely involved in those neighborhoods and not just focus on Capitol Hill. Those two neighborhoods tend to get overlooked quite a bit.”

Bicycle officers strongly advocate for the program. They’re the ones in SPD constantly out on the streets.

“They know every person who is staying outside, who goes to the parks and when, who’s dying,” Gillespie said. “So they just know the neighborhood so well.”

Officers faced an unexpected learning curve when it came to LEAD. They didn’t realize how difficult the process can be.

“Our clients can take a lot of steps forward and a few steps back, and sometimes that can be really discouraging,” Gillespie said. “We’re not exaggerating when we say we’re in a homelessness crisis and housing is incredibly limited so people wait for years to get into housing. A lot of people have this obsession where once somebody’s in services, our counseling everything’s going to be great, and it takes a huge learning curve for people not in this work to really understand change is slow and intentional and thoughtful.”

LEAD doesn’t go in with a savior mentality. Instead, they take a client-driven approach, believing people will eventually problem solve on their own, reach their own goals, and use their own (typically newly-discovered) avenues to do that. Workers feel outsiders sometimes view LEAD as enablers and that they don’t follow-through with their jobs when progress isn’t immediate.

The program intentionally keeps caseloads small so workers aren’t overwhelmed. The expansion has been slow as well.

“It’s quality over quantity,” Morris said. “If you try to grow it too fast, you lose some of the cohesiveness and continuity of the program which has made it so successful.”

Gillespie’s passion lies at the intersection of social work and criminal justice, which she said LEAD does best.

“It’s a very organic way to get through tangible policy reform but without having to go through all the bureaucracy of getting change through actual policy,” she said. “Instead, we’re working with frontline staff to take people’s complicated lives into the decision.”

Here’s how the program runs, step by step:

A person is stopped by an officer and faces arrest for a low-level drug crime (paraphernalia, a small amount of drugs, prostitution). As long as this person doesn’t have felonies or violent crimes, the officer can call an outreach coordinator. If the person agrees to participating in the LEAD program (which would remove any note of this interaction as long as they show up to a meeting), the outreach coordinator meets the two on site.

Then the “warm hand off” happens. The officer basically gives the outreach coordinator custody of the person and who then undergoes an initial 15 to 20 minute screening. The coordinator asks for the person’s needs, if they have ID, a birth certificate, social security number, medical care. The person is asked where they can be found or how they can be contacted for check-ups.

If willing to participate, the individual has 30 days to show up for a more intensive intake, connecting them to services. There are no requirements after this assessment. Once they meet the only requirement, the officer and prosecutor are notified and the arrest goes away completely. It can never be used against this person in any way.

An arrest isn’t even necessarily required for LEAD intervention. SPD can also do “social contact referrals.” If an officer has contact with someone they know is struggling, they can refer the person to the East Precinct Sergeant who reviews the history and determines eligibility.

“The reason we created [social contact referrals] is because officers from the first year of roll out didn’t feel like they wanted to come up with a reason to arrest people,” Morris said. “It’s police-advocated.”

She said over 90% of those are screened meet the 30-day requirement.

“The cool part is if you enroll out,” Morris said, “more providers and community members are going to be given the tools and resources to make social contact referrals of their own.”

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13 thoughts on “Seattle sorting out how to pay for expansion of drug diversion program beyond Capitol Hill

  1. Thanks for the article, Kelsey, and for the specifics as to exactly how LEAD works. Of course, most potential arrestees are going to agree initially to participate, to avoid a criminal record, and most are going to show up for the 30-day requirement, but my concern is: what happens after they receive “referral for services”? It sounds like to accept any services is voluntary. Is any tracking done to see what percentage actually participate in services? Or to see how many re-offend over the subsequent year or two? In order to assess the efficacy of LEAD, this follow-up data is necessary. Otherwise, it is far from clear that the program is a good idea.

    • LEAD has been studied extensively. You can find the following reports on the evaluation page of the LEAD website:

      – LEAD Program Evaluation: Describing LEAD Case Management in Participants’ Own Words (Updated November 2016)

      – LEAD Program Evaluation: Participant Housing, Employment, and Income Outcomes (May 2016)

      – LEAD Program Evaluation: Criminal Justice and Legal System Utilization and Associated Costs (June 2015)

      – LEAD Program Evaluation: Recidivism Report (April 2015)

  2. Bob K.: If you’re *actually* interested about in LEAD’s efficacy (as a frequent reader of CHS blog and your comments, I have my doubts), it takes about 30 seconds of googling to learn that it’s been vetted by UW.

    Google — or another search tool of your choice — will answer many related questions about LEAD’s program.

  3. see also: “Chasing Heroin,” PBS Frontline, February 23, 2016,

    A searing, two-hour investigation places America’s heroin crisis in a fresh and provocative light — telling the stories of individual addicts, but also illuminating the epidemic’s years-in-the-making social context, deeply examining shifts in U.S. drug policy, and exploring what happens when addiction is treated like a public health issue, not a crime.

  4. see also: “Breaking the expensive rearrest cycle,” Ali Velshi On Target, Al Jazeera America, September 22, 2015,

    US cities turn to counseling rather than incarceration to convert drug addicts from criminals to responsible citizens

    When the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program was launched in Seattle in October 2011 as a pilot project, no one knew if it would work. The basic idea behind the initiative — that counseling can be more effective than incarceration in converting drug addicts from criminals to responsible citizens — isn’t new. Yet in one respect, it’s revolutionary. Seattle is asking officers to think about their work differently. Unlike with typical drug courts (which Seattle also has), the program makes the police responsible for decisions about cases, taking advantage of officers’ knowledge of the streets. Only a few dozen officers and about 250 offenders are participating in Seattle’s LEAD program. Still, it appears to be working, not just in that it’s reducing the number of crimes committed but also in that officers on the beat are beginning to see their jobs in a new way.

  5. Clear, concise, and informative. I’ve really appreciated CHS being back, and the quality is better than ever. Keep up the good work, CHS!