Albany Times Union: Albany arrest-diversion program favors fewer - and whiter - residents

Albany arrest-diversion program favors fewer - and whiter - residents

By Eduardo Medina| via Albany Times Union

January 25, 2021

 

ALBANY — At a meeting last September on police reform, officials with the city's department pulled up a PowerPoint slide — with an image of flowers and green grass — that promised “21st century policing,” followed by a slide naming one of the tools the department would use to fulfill that promise: “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program.”

But there is a sense among some that the almost-5-year-old program is not meeting its goal: to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate. Critics say police are not sharing crucial data with program leaders, fewer people are being accepted into the program — and those who are admitted are disproportionately white.

Albany LEAD — only the third such program in the nation when launched in 2016 — aims to reduce low-level arrests and racial disparities within the criminal justice system. The premise of LEAD is simple: The war on drugs, begun in the 1970s and marked by harsh sentences for low-level drug offenses, failed. Through LEAD, supporters said, people engaged by the police on non-violent, low-level offenses — many affected by poverty, homelessness or mental health issues — would instead be diverted to “harm reduction-based” services.

Officers have discretion to offer LEAD diversion to likely candidates, so long as the complainant also approves and declines prosecution.

LEAD participants would have case managers to help them receive treatment services for addiction or mental health. Help with housing needs was planned. City leaders were excited about the program, including Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who described it at the time as a “promise to the community,” because for too long, “there have been broken and unrealized promises.”

LEAD is now close to becoming another unrealized promise for police reform.

The most recent data from LEAD shows that in the third quarter of 2020, from July to September, 290 Black residents were arrested, and 91 of them qualified for LEAD diversion. Of the 91, four were diverted. In the same months, 95 white residents were arrested, 30 were eligible for diversion and five were diverted.

“We have to face the data,” said Brendan Cox, who retired as Albany's police chief in 2017 to become director of policing strategies for the LEAD National Support Bureau. “That data looks like something we need to make improvements on. … I don’t think there’s any partner involved with LEAD that wouldn’t say we need to address that.”

Albany police Chief Eric Hawkins could not be reached for an interview, but he said in a statement that “Albany LEAD is a critical part of the police department’s efforts to assist individuals in crisis who commit low-level offenses. We continue to work collaboratively with our community partners to further enhance the program and make any adjustments necessary to ensure the program’s continued success.”

Sheehan also could not be reached for an interview, but her chief of staff, David Galin, said in a statement that "on its face, this data is surprising and, if accurate, very troubling. Mayor Sheehan has requested the LEAD Policy Coordinating Group and Community Leadership Team work to review the data and provide a deeper analysis to fully understand any and all disparities in diversions as we work to reduce recidivism rates," adding Sheehan is "committed to utilizing the LEAD program as one of the tools to ensure more equitable and just community policing.”

Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, said he questions the degree to which police and Sheehan are committed to the program. The Katal Center resigned as a LEAD partner in January 2020 for several reasons, including the low number of diversions and evident racial disparities.

“Police weren’t committed. ... The mayor’s office knew there were no diversions happening; her office is in the meetings," Sayegh said. "The mayor may say that she’s committed to (LEAD). That’s all fine. But there’s no evidence of that based on the outcomes that we were all there to produce together.”

'No-data hell'

To even see the data in the first place and obtain it from police, however, has been a continuing struggle, even for organizations in the LEAD policy coordinating group, which planned the program. Those stakeholders include city police; the mayor’s office; the Albany County Sheriff’s Office; the Albany County District Attorney's Office; the Center for Law and Justice; and the Albany County Department of Mental Health. LEAD operates as a partnership between these organizations, with no single entity in charge.

A group called the Community Leadership Team was created to act as a vehicle for community input, questions and accountability, a LEAD report states. The CLT was also in charge of informing the community about the program.

For the first two years of the program, CLT attended neighborhood association meetings, explaining how the program worked.

Paul Collins-Hackett, a community leader and member of the CLT, said members worked hard to make sure people knew about LEAD. But when data began trickling in from police in 2016 and 2017, racial disparities in diversions were becoming evident, he said. As the CLT members, which then consisted of around 20 people, began to raise concerns with police, police stopped releasing data to them, he added. From January 2018 to August 2019, no data was shared with the CLT or online to the public.

And when it was shared in August 2019, it was only data for that month, and it showed a continuing pattern of racial disparities: of 55 Black people eligible for diversions, one was diverted. Eventually, most CLT members lost confidence in the program and left.

There are three case managers involved with LEAD, and Cox estimated that each can handle 20 to 25 LEAD participants.

After August 2019, no CLT members were getting data, even though all LEAD partners had agreed on a monthly data report that would be pulled by police. The layout and scheduled release of the data were already established, but multiple people involved with LEAD said police were not forthcoming with releasing arrest and diversion numbers.

“We were in that no-data hell for a good while,” said Kelly Kimbrough, a member of the CLT and Ward 4 council member. “If we’re selling this to the community, we need to know what’s going on. And how do we know? By receiving data. And if we’re not receiving data, we don’t know where we are. We can’t speak to the program.”

Dennis Mosley, a member of the CLT with experience in restorative justice work and sociology, said he couldn’t afford to lose his integrity with the community by praising a program that officers may not be using.

“I can’t sell what I’m not sure is working. … So if you’re not doing LEAD, but you want me to sell it, am I going to sell what you’re not doing?” Mosley said.

Mosley said he questions how police and the city can tout LEAD as a great program, all while it continues to fail at upholding one of the core values and missions listed on the founding document: “undo racial disparities at the front-end of the criminal justice system.”

Retired Albany police officer Brian Hawley was the LEAD project manager for less than five months before resigning from the position this month.

As LEAD project manager, he was responsible for convening LEAD stakeholders and running the program. Hawley could not be reached for comment since his resignation, but he told the Times Union in November that there are several reasons an officer may not offer LEAD to any individual, including people who do not understand what LEAD is and people simply not being good candidates.

Hawley said one of the reasons the diversion numbers are so low could be because the Center for Law and Justice and the CLT need to do a better job of informing residents about the program.

The Katal Center's Sayegh said that it's “ridiculous” for former and current police officers to say that for LEAD to work, there needs to be more community awareness of it. This is especially so, he said, for a program where the primary discretionary decision is made by police.

“The argument is: In order for the police to do more diversions, the community has to do more education about it,” Sayegh said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

A draft report from the Community Safety and Restorative Justice board stated that “LEAD needs greater community awareness,” that the Center for Law and Justice “fell significantly short” of outreach and that the CLT needed to do a better job at holding people involved in LEAD "accountable."

All three remaining members of the CLT said they were never contacted by members of the Community Safety and Restorative Justice board and weren’t given an opportunity to explain their hurdles with outreach and data collection.

“It’s hard to hold people accountable when we don’t have data for a year and a half,” Collins-Hackett said, noting that he contacted the mayor’s office and met personally with Hawkins, but neither meeting yielded data. “How are we supposed to hold anyone accountable?”

Collins-Hackett has also asked police if he can see what officers' LEAD training looks like. They have not said yes yet, Collins-Hackett said. Police have said every officer in the department receives LEAD training.

The Center for Law and Justice has acknowledged its shortcomings in a report from 2019.

'We just need to divert more'

Hawley told the Times Union last fall that when LEAD was first rolled out, there was skepticism among officers about the program.

“If you went in and you told your boss you did a LEAD diversion, stuff like that, you know, you’d probably get a lot of ribbing,” Hawley said. “I remember in the very beginning, you know, sure, you went out there, you made a LEAD diversion, people at work and around the room would be busting your chops.”

Hawley said that after the first couple of years, officers believed in the program and were praised for doing diversions. But the diversion numbers, which were partially released in December 2020 after months of questions and demands from some LEAD stakeholders, don’t show more diversions.

In 2017, there were 53 diversions, followed by 87 in 2018. In 2019, the year after Hawkins became chief, they fell to 35 — then 32 in 2020. Police have still not released comprehensive data showing how many people each month were qualified to be diverted but were not. They have only released the 2020 third-quarter report to the CLT and the policy coordinating group.

People close to the program say Cox displayed strong leadership in trying to bolster LEAD within the police department. But since Hawkins took the reigns in 2018, there have been questions from LEAD partners surrounding his and Sheehan’s commitment to the program, spurred by the low number of diversions.

Every year the program has been in place, the racial percentages of the diversion rates haven't come close to meeting those of the arrest rates, something LEAD stakeholders say is essential for the program to fulfill its mission. Cox said LEAD diversions in Albany should "be reflective of” arrest rates examined according to race. A recent city-commissioned study found that Black residents made up 65.7 percent of all arrests in Albany from 2015 to 2019 while white residents made up 26.5 percent. If the goal was matching those percentages, roughly 65 percent of those diverted through LEAD would be Black. In 2020, the worst year yet for racial disparities regarding LEAD diversions, 31 percent were Black; in the best year, 2016, 40 percent were Black.

Still, everyone involved with the program says they believe in the idea of LEAD. Over 200 people have received some type of help since 2016 because of LEAD. But there is much room for improvement, said Dr. Alice Green, executive director at the Center for Law and Justice.

“We’re not diverting as many people of color as we would like to under this program,” Green said, adding that she would like for another evaluation of the program to be completed. The last one done was in 2017. “We value having a LEAD program because I think it’s really important to keep diverting people. We just need to divert more and make sure we’re including the population that needs to be included.”

As police concluded their PowerPoint slide presentation in September, a resident asked for an update on the LEAD program.

“As far as numbers?” said an officer at the virtual meeting also being attended by Sheehan and Hawkins.

“Yeah.”

The officers, who were sharing a computer, could be heard talking among themselves.

“We haven’t changed anything with the LEAD. As far as officers go, they still use their discretion. They still do the LEAD referrals pretty much every day,” the officer said.

Then another officer spoke: “We are doing LEAD diversions. One of our officers used discretion to do one. I believe we’ve had several in the month of August. I’m not sure about any in September yet. But definitely, we had several in August.”

According to LEAD data, there were zero diversions in August.