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.”