The Hard Work of Innovative Policing

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LEAD video snapshotTwo weeks ago I spoke on a panel at a White House forum on innovations in policing about Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. The LEAD program allows the police and prosecutors to redirect nonviolent, low level adult offenders away from the criminal justice system and to social service providers.

I’m a big fan of necessary innovations like LEAD as we seek on many fronts to address the failure of mass incarceration in this country. You may have heard this statistic: the United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population, but we hold 25% of the world’s prisoners. Our country incarcerates far too many people (including juveniles) and perpetuates a criminal justice system that punishes people of color at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. We’ve even shamefully nurtured a for-profit prison industry that now applies political pressure to achieve higher levels of detention and incarceration.

It’s just wrong to put individuals addicted to alcohol and drugs or suffering through a mental health crisis in prison if their crimes are low-level, non-violent, petty offenses. Unfortunately, as a society, we do it far too often.

LEAD is one response to this tragic reality.

Originally funded by foundations and applied only in the Belltown neighborhood of downtown, the program received $830,000 in annual City funding for 2014 and 2015 and has expanded to a wider section of downtown. Other jurisdictions across the country, starting with Santa Fe, NM and Albany, NY, are attempting to replicate our approach.

At its essence, LEAD applies and formalizes a longstanding policing principle: use police discretion to determine for each individual offender whether services or sanctions will better help the individual and protect the community. Police officers must be aware of the full continuum of possible options available to them; LEAD provides another tool in their toolkit. (Watch a brief video discussion about LEAD with a police officer, a case manager, and a LEAD participant.)

Recent evaluations have shown that LEAD offers a promising approach. A comparison of LEAD clients to a similar control population found that those in LEAD were 58% less likely to be arrested after they entered LEAD. Another study has found that criminal justice system and legal costs for LEAD participants were significantly less compared to others not engaged in LEAD. A third study, to be released late this year, will examine the impact on LEAD clients’ lives.

LEAD is a multi-disciplinary approach to very challenging public safety issues; it’s complex and it’s hard work for police officers on the street and case workers. It requires creative thinking and patience. But it’s clearly the right thing to do as we seek reform in our criminal justice system.