In Ithaca, some people are caught in a revolving door with law enforcement, and police and community members alike say it's time for a new approach.
Next year, Ithaca will try a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, modeled after a program in Seattle. Ithaca is one of 37 cities in the U.S. exploring, developing or launching a LEAD program, according to the LEAD National Support Bureau.
Since 2011, police officers in Seattle have been diverting some low-level drug and prostitution offenders to case managers, social workers and drug treatment officers — without filing charges against them. It's a way to divert people from the criminal justice system to services, and based on initial studies, it's considered a success.
When it comes to people who use drugs in Ithaca, police officers are usually the first point of contact for services. However, according to findings in the Ithaca Plan, community members and law enforcement alike do not think officers are best equipped to deal with drug use.
Under a LEAD pilot, however, instead of getting booked and jailed, police officers will be able to direct offenders to services and hopefully stop that cycle. In Seattle, LEAD cuts out the criminal justice system and assigns voluntary participants to case workers, who can provide immediate help, like a hot meal, a warm coat and a safe place to sleep, as well as long-term services for drug treatment, stable housing and job training.
Only those who commit low-level offenses qualify for the program. People who commit violent offenses or felonies would likely be excluded from the program, Ithaca Police Chief John Barber said.
“It’s the people who are addicted, and they’re perhaps stealing to support their addiction,” Barber said.
In Seattle, participants qualified for the LEAD program as long as they weren’t carrying more than 3 grams of drugs, had no felony convictions for serious violent crimes or certain other offenses, and weren’t suspected of promoting prostitution or exploiting minors in a drug-dealing enterprise, according to the Seattle Times.
With a LEAD program, a group of professionals will sit down with a low-level offender and customize a program to help the person succeed and possibly overcome their addiction, Barber explained.
“Right now, the way we’re doing business, it’s a revolving door. We make the arrests because that’s really all we’re equipped to do,” Barber said. He estimates 10 to 20 people are in this “revolving door” in Ithaca.
That's why Barber, an officer for more than 20 years, says the time for a change has arrived. “It’s not really working, and it’s time to try a new approach,”he said.
Ultimately, the goal is for people to turn their lives around and kick their addiction, Barber said.
"The point I like (about) this whole idea is you get professionals around the table, you bring an individual in, you hear their story, you find out what’s going on in their life, and then as a group, you develop this plan and you have benchmarks within this plan, and you help these people succeed so they can be productive members of society if they’re not anymore," Barber said.
In Seattle, LEAD has been considered a success so far. According to the Seattle-based nonprofit Public Defender Association, which helped design and implement LEAD, after enrolling in the program, participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested compared to offenders who went through regular criminal justice processing.
According to the LEAD National Support Bureau, a partnership between the Public Defender Association and Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, preliminary program data also indicate that LEAD improves the health and well-being of people "struggling at the intersection of poverty and drug and mental health problems."
How Seattle turned to LEAD
LEAD was initially conceived as a way to combat racial disparity in drug enforcement in Seattle, said Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association.
“We arose out of concern about racial inequality and the drug war, and even though it’s now getting a lot of attention in the midst of the heroin and opiate crisis and its impact on white people, our commitment is to make sure this kind of innovation does not begin and end with people who are more privileged, and their families recognized that they’re not supposed to go to prison,” Daugaard said.
The conversation about a need for something different began around 2005, Daugaard said, amidst "high-profile litigation over racial disparity in drug arrests." During a settlement conference, Daugaard remembers a police captain asked a simple question along the lines of "Setting aside whether we agree with you on your critique, if we wanted to do something different to fix this, what should we do?"
Daugaard said she had no idea what to say.
"We really — I mean talk about calling someone’s bluff," Daugaard said. "We really had not a clue what the answer to that question should be, and it took us a couple years to low-test some ideas with community partners before we could come back and credibly say, 'Well, yeah, we think we know the answer to that question.'"
Daugaard said the captain's point was clear: It's easy to criticize, but police have to answer to people legitimately complaining about the consequences of the drug economy — both health and quality-of-life issues for those who use drugs, as well as community members whose cars and homes are being burglarized.
Once the groups focused on what they should do instead, Daugaard said they noticed a "rampant dissatisfaction" among people they thought were supporters of the status quo.
"They did not feel that the arrests, jail and prosecution strategy was delivering the results they wanted," Daugaard said. "They were constantly complaining that it was going terribly. Rather than seeing these people as the enemy, which was my original view as a public defender for many years … I came to see that they wanted that because no other idea was being floated, and the minute we started talking about alternative strategies, that in all likelihood would work as well or better than had been going on, they were just like, 'Yeah, great.'"
When Ithaca's Municipal Drug Policy Committee, or MDPC, held focus groups while creating the Ithaca Plan, participants brought up issues of race and racial profiling tied in with police interactions. The drug policy committee found "perceived experiences of racial profiling, difference in treatment, and racial disparities in arrests rates have created a perception that law enforcement targets communities of color and are less willing to connect them to services than white Ithacans."
The MDPC found that some Ithacans were concerned that law enforcement typically viewed drug users as white and sellers as black or Latino. That assumption translates into "a widely held belief among community members of color that law enforcement and treatment providers are more lenient and compassionate towards white community members' drug use, possession or selling versus black or Latino community members who use, possess or sell," the report states.
Those assumptions have not made their way to Ithaca's Community Police Board, which acts as a community-police liaison and fields complaints and compliments from the community to the Ithaca Police Department. When a complaint is made, the board starts an investigation and works to come to a resolution.
In 2015, the board received five complaints and didn't have any findings against an officer, according to the board's annual report. There were also 33 written compliments in 2015, the report states. Richard Rogers, co-chair of the board, said it's rare to have findings against an officer, and it's also rare that a complaint against an Ithaca police officer is regarding racism. He has served on the board for three years.
"Complaints that state that the police department is acting in a way that's racist are rare," Rogers said. "In my tenure, we have not found any officer guilty of any kind of discrimination on a racial basis."
One of the biggest questions about implementing LEAD in Ithaca is where will officers and case managers direct people in need of help? Though the Ithaca Plan aims to boost access to housing and treatment, there are currently few options. Barber said services are something that has to come along with the plan. Seattle has faced a similar problem, Daugaard said.
"You can’t divert people to nothing. You can’t ask police and communities for very long to hand people over to a system that’s broken and inadequate, but I think that we are all committed to making sure that system learns from our experience and is built out over time in a way that’s really more capable as doing what we need," she said.
She said Seattle is a good test for whether it's still worth trying even when the care structure is only partially built.
"It turns out it is still much better than what we were doing before; it's just that it can be vastly better," Daugaard said.
• Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services, carsny.org, 607-273-5500, 334 W. State St., Ithaca.
• Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County, alcoholdrugcouncil.org, 607-274-6288, 201 E. Green St., Suite 500, Ithaca.
• Community Coalition for Healthy Youth, healthyyouth.org, 607-274-5310, 320 W. MLK Jr./State St., Ithaca.
• Ithaca Community Recovery, ithacacommunityrecovery.org, 607-216-8754, 518 W. Seneca St., Ithaca.
• Ithaca Health Alliance, ithacahealth.org/freeclinic, 607-330-1254, 521 W. Seneca St., Ithaca.
The Ithaca Journal is examining the five categories of recommendations in the Ithaca Plan, the city’s new approach to drug policy, in a series of articles.
Those five categories include governance and leadership; education; recovery-oriented treatment, harm reduction and ancillary services; community and economic development; and public safety.