The LEAD Program Faces a Reckoning for Centering Police

September 17, 2020

The murder of George Floyd and the explosion of protests against police terror led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement exposed, once again, the systemic violence of law enforcement. But BLM has done much more. It put a laser focus on how prescribing policing as the cure to a host of social maladies has been a deadly disaster. Calls to radically rethink public safety, to defund, decenter or abolish police departments and to redirect that money to social services are being heard across the US.

One program that for years has centered the role of the police in social provision is LEADLaw Enforcement Assisted Diversion. The program diverts people who come into contact with police and meet certain criteria—including people who use drugs, sex workers and people with mental health issues—into intensive case management, rather than low-level charges. LEAD has enjoyed support and engagement from various harm reduction organizations, together with public funding.

It is better than simply jailing peopleand LEAD has recently shown signs of trying to change the way it works. But here is the fundamental flaw: Police are the gatekeepers to social services and must approve each person for the program. They form what is essentially a police checkpoint.

Why design a program that gives the police more power over vulnerable groups? Why create a situation that requires contact with and consent from the police to access housing, healthcare, job training, drug treatment and mental health support? The criminalized groups that LEAD targets generally hate, fear and avoid the police. And for good reasonthe police harass, assault, rape and kill them with near impunity.

“We couldn’t see a way to get around the harm they were doing without holding up a mirror to them.”

Filter asked Najja Morris, director of the LEAD National Support Bureau, why the program was conceived with a central role for the police. “We couldn’t see a way to get around the harm they were doing without holding up a mirror to them to say, ‘See, the things you’re doing are harmful and the thing we’re doing is less harmful,’” she said. “There was a method to the madness in initially having them be part of the conversation so they could be part of the shift. The reason was to get the buy-in, partnership and for law enforcement to shift culture. We’re not claiming that all officers have made this shift.”

Launched in Seattle, Washington in 2011, LEAD’s creation was driven by concerns about open-air drug markets, racist enforcement and the negative effects of mass incarceration. The stated goals of LEAD are to “reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system for low-level offenses related to drug use, mental health, sex work and extreme poverty; to undo racial disparities at the front-end of the criminal justice system; and to improve public safety and public health through harm reduction interventions.”

Helping the most at-risk groups and confronting racial disparities that permeate every level of the War on Drugs and the criminal-legal system are commendable goals. But it is a mistake that the police “exercise discretionary authority at point of contact to divert individuals.”

“I don’t think that LEAD is a real reform in any sense,” Keith Brown, a harm reduction consultant and former project director for LEAD in Albany, New York, told Filter. “Real reform is divesting from law enforcement and the criminal-legal system and investing in other resources.”

This is how LEAD works in practice: People suspected of low-level drug-law violations, sex work and other crimes are arrested and taken to a precinct where they’re screened for program eligibility by a police officer. Those who meet the criteria are offered a one-time diversion to the LEAD program, with their arrest record erased and no charges. In some cities, the police do “pre-booking” diversion on the spot, and there is no arrest. But if a person refuses LEAD, they can be arrested.

Is LEAD really a choice in either of these circumstances? It’s a massive contradiction that only after a police encounter can people receive trauma-informed, harm reduction-based services. For many, interactions with police trigger traumaand particularly for Black men, can be a death sentence.

There is another way to get referred for LEAD services, however: a community/social contact referral which doesn’t involve the police. “There has been a migration where arrest diversions were the majority of referrals in Seattle, but about a year or so ago the majority came from the community,” Tara Moss, the Seattle King County LEAD project director told Filter. “The police don’t have to arrest someone to get them into LEAD, they can just call in a referral and immediately approve them. And in Seattle we have the option to not get the approval of the police.” It’s important to note that referrals to LEAD vary across programs and regions.

“If we’re not moving the dial to create services that don’t rely on the police, what the fuck is the point?”

Once a person gets past the “police checkpoint,” access to intensive case management services unsurprisingly brings positive outcomes. According to one study, LEAD participants were significantly more likely to obtain housing and employment, which helped to lower the rate of recidivism by 58 percent. “The simple act of having participants connect to a harm reductionist is transformative,” said Brown. “There is incredibly valuable work being done by case managers in LEAD.”

But he added bluntly, “If we’re not moving the dial to create services that don’t rely on the police, what the fuck is the point? We want to move from calling the police when there is a problem to calling the harm reductionists.”

Seattle, as well as other cities where LEAD programs operate—including Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portlandhave long histories of racist policing and disproportionate killing of Black people. The LEAD program attempts to tackle racial disparities in part through “detailed training” of the police.

“There are a lot of overpromised outcomes in LEAD that are hard to achieve or flat-out impossible. The most obvious one is addressing racial disparities,” said Brown. “All LEAD can do is mitigate or otherwise reduce the harms of racial disparities.”

“If you are a person of color who would have otherwise been arrested and instead you are diverted to a case manager, that is better than you cycling through the criminal justice system,” he continued, “but that isn’t undoing racial disparities. LEAD has been in Albany since 2016. People arrested for cannabis are 97 percent Black! But wait, isn’t LEAD supposed to undo racial disparities at the front-end of the criminal justice system?”

The exclusion criteria* to enter LEAD are also problematic. As a result of systemic racism, Black people and other racial minorities are much more likely to have the prior convictions that render them ineligible. But according to Moss, “These exclusion criteria are solely relevant in police arrest diversions. People can have a criminal history if they are referred by a community/social contact.”

The LEAD program has a set of core principles to guarantee the “success of the policing role.” They attempt to get buy-in by giving the police—not the community—“ownership” of the program. A core principle states, “Launching LEAD with officers in prestigious, hard-charging assignments that traditionally make drug arrests helps ensure the program is regarded as ‘real’ police work.” This is incredibly tone-deaf given the violent reality of the militarized and racist War on Drugs.

Another core principle is to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community. LEAD advocates believe that there is “potential for reconciliation and healing in police-community relations.” This is shockingly naive given the well-documented racism and violence of law enforcement—on full display during months of tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings and arrests of thousands of peaceful protesters. BLM activists’ righteous fury is also a reaction to the fact that police are rarely prosecuted for beating or murdering Black people, even when they’re captured on video.

“Sex workers have been incredibly harmed by the police,” Brown added. “So the idea that all of a sudden the same officers that have harassed and in some cases sexually assaulted and abused sex workers are now going to be friends and you’ll be diverted into some Shangri-La harm reduction services… That’s why I say sex workers need decriminalization, not diversion.”

Signs of Change—But Will It Be Adequate?

The dial is slowly being moved. Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold announced in July that the police gatekeeper role in her city’s LEAD program will end, and that funding for LEAD would be withheld if police approval continues to be required for enrollment in the program.

And the LEAD National Support Bureau recently put out the following statement:

“To meet this transformative moment, the flagship LEAD program in Seattle is now known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion/ Let Everyone Advance with Dignity, and we have developed a new option for LEAD operations that decenters law enforcement as gatekeepers to LEAD services (while retaining traditional LEAD for jurisdictions where that itself represents a meaningful paradigm shift).”

Harm reduction organizations are also rethinking their engagement. Most prominently, the Drug Policy Alliance,** which for years has supported LEAD, has signaled change under new leadership. Kassandra Frederique, DPA’s new executive director, recently told Filter,There was a split in our organization for many years … It’s something we’ve always struggled with.” She continued, “Going forward, we’re going to push for people who use drugs to be able to access support outside of the criminal-legal system. We always thought LEAD was a short-term response.”

“We absolutely don’t want to be the excuse for the police to continue policing and using us as a shield for that.”

Just as LEAD split DPA, it appears that there isn’t total agreement among LEAD staff on the role of the police going forward.

“What if we split law enforcement response between crisis and crime? Law enforcement responds to crime and we respond to those in crisis,” asked Moss. “What we have seen in LEAD is that someone who is in a crisis who is Black might be called in as a crime. Which is why we don’t want to completely take apart this relationship with law enforcement or break up with them. We want them to still be learning that if they’re responding to a crime, it might be better to use an outreach approach than taking the person to jail.”

Morris, however, wants a divorce. “Now is the time for us to make the final push to get the police completely out of the gatekeeping role,” she said. “Our goal was to not be in the same place in 10 years and we are coming up on our nine-year anniversary… We absolutely don’t want to be the excuse for the police to continue policing and using us as a shield for that. We want to be seen as the alternative to policing.”

Whether LEAD, in a completely different form, can achieve that in the future remains to be seen. But unfortunately, the program has so far provided cover for the police by allowing them to project a progressive image and assert, “Hey, see we’ve been reformed.” Now they are the good guys.

Nothing could be further from the truth. “The research has shown that police training has very limited success outcomes,” said Brown. “You can’t train your way out of a culture. I’ve trained hundreds of police in LEAD. I told them I wasn’t there to change their culture. My job was to explain how LEAD works.”

Police should have no role in any LEAD program and the name itself should be droppedit’s long overdue. The harm reduction community, among others, has a critical lesson to learn from the mistakes of LEAD and it is this: The police can’t be part of solving problems when they are the problem.


*Participants are deemed eligible if they appear amenable to diversion and do not meet the following program exclusion criteria : a) the amount of drugs involved exceeds 7 grams; b) the suspected drug activity involved delivery or possession with intent to deliver and there was reason to believe the suspect was dealing for profit above a subsistence income; c) the individual appeared to exploit minors or others in a drug dealing enterprise; d) the individual was suspected of promoting prostitution; e) the individual has a disqualifying lifetime criminal history (i.e., conviction for murder 1 or 2, arson 1, robbery 1, assault 1, kidnapping, Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act 1, sex offense, or attempt of any of these crimes), or within the past 10 years, has a conviction for robbery 2, assault 2 or 3, or burglary 1, or within the past 5 years, has a conviction for domestic violence assault 4, violation of a domestic violence no contact order/order of protection, burglary 2, or Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act 2; or g) the individual is already involved in King County Drug Diversion Court or Mental Health Court.

**The Drug Policy Alliance has previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

Photograph of a police (non-LEAD) encounter in New York by Helen Redmond.

Helen Redmond

Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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