How Ithaca Can Arrest Fewer People: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion

Categories Health Care, Ithaca, Law Enforcement

By Josh Brokaw

Sometime, in the presumably near future, Ithaca and Tompkins County will join the growing number of municipalities practicing the principles of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion [LEAD].

Changing the practices of how Ithaca Police Department and Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office officers deal with people who frequently interact with law enforcement was one of the many recommendations in the Ithaca Plan municipal drug policy, released in February 2016.

The basic idea of LEAD programs is that instead of arresting frequent offenders, who might be committing crimes to get money for drugs or to pay the rent, police can avoid arresting people and instead get them help through a network of service providers and case managers.

According to Sergeant Kevin Slattery of the Ithaca Police Department, starting a LEAD program here is “progressing,” but coordination of the many different agencies required to start such a program is taking time.


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Ithaca’s SWAT team vehicle. Photo via Ithaca Police Department Facebook page.

Ithaca, Slattery said, will be following “the national model of LEAD with a few minor administrative tweaks to custom fit our community.”

The Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office is also on board with implementing a LEAD program, according to Slattery and two county legislators.

Najja Morris and Keith Brown of the LEAD National Support Bureau spoke at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center [GIAC] gym on Monday, November 13 about their experiences helping establish LEAD programs in Seattle and Albany, respectively. Retired Albany police chief Brendan Cox, now part of the LEAD National Support Bureau, was also in town last week for meetings with city and county officials.

Listen to Brokaw’s WRFI News story on this talk at this link or in the player:

Morris served as a case manager and a direct services supervisor with the LEAD pilot program in Seattle, which was grant funded for its first four years after beginning in 2011. Brown was the Albany LEAD project Director at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

With a modest, but engaged and influential crowd — nearly half of 2018’s Tompkins County Legislature was in attendance — Morris and Brown spent more than two hours talking about how to establish a LEAD program that is effective in helping people through a lens of trauma-informed care, that helps police officers change their outlook on policing, and that is responsive to the citizenry’s concerns.

Najja Morris, of the LEAD National Support Bureau, at GIAC on Nov. 13, 2017. Josh Brokaw/TruthSayers

“For a lot of people, this is backwards thinking,” Morris said. “They want LEAD to be for people who are newly, freshly impacted and don’t have any arrests … this is for people who have been out there struggling for a really long time.”

For police, LEAD provides another option rather than “arrest or not arrest,” Brown said.

In Seattle, police were “so happy to refer people to something else other than arresting them or ignoring it,” Morris said. There, the most aggressive police officers were trained in LEAD principles first.

“The officers doing all the arrests, who were 100 percent pro-arrest — ‘How many arrests did you get? How many pieces of crack did you catch?’ We trained those officers first,” Morris said. “They had a personality that wanted to take anything and do it well. When we were like, do this LEAD thing well, it was those officers who really, really started to do arrest referrals.”

Travis Brooks, GIAC’s assistant director, said that on his Seattle trip a few years ago to observe LEAD processes, he was impressed by this idea of training the most aggressive police — what he called the “jump out cops” — first.

“I figured they took officers who were community officers, the do-gooders,” Brooks said. “And they said, no we took the ones that kicked in doors, the ones making all the arrests … their responses to questions and sharing their stories really blew me away, because for the first time in my life I’m sitting in a room with officers who look at policing very differently.”

In Albany, determining the eligibility criteria for people who could be in LEAD was a “collective process,” Brown said. People charged with low-level misdemeanors, everyone agreed at the outset, would be eligible. The Albany police suggested that felony charges for fifth-degree possession be included as well. Initially, anyone with a warrant wasn’t going to be considered, but police pushed for those with “what they considered to be nonsense warrants,” if the warrant could be cleared or the authority that issued the warrant decided they didn’t want to extradite the arrestee.  In the area of sex work, it was decided that “if someone is exploiting someone else, we don’t want them in LEAD,” Brown said.

Keith Brown, of the LEAD National Support Bureau, at GIAC on Nov. 13, 2017. Josh Brokaw/TruthSayers

In Albany, Brown said, issues of mental health and poverty are included in LEAD — it’s not just about opioid users.

“They’re all issues of public health and public safety. We also had an eye on racial disparities. Who’s using heroin?”  Brown pointed to his arm. “My people. If we make this program geared to those using heroin, we’ve already undone what we said we’re going to do, which is undo racial disparities.”

While policing by the LEAD playbook can’t fix all issues of racism, Brown said, giving another choice besides arrest or ignore will “ideally remove some of that power dynamic.”

All of Albany’s 342 police officers have been trained in harm reduction and in implicit biases awareness, Brown said.


Brown also made the point several times that the public in Albany has access to policing data, now.

A LEAD program must be properly funded, with case managers given an appropriate workload, Morris said. In Seattle, there are 12 full-time case managers working with LEAD.

“You have to keep the client ratio low,” Morris said. “Once people see the outcomes and intensity of case management of harm reduction, they understand what they’re paying for. When you keep saying ‘Come on in, come on in,’ attention goes down for each person.”

Degrees and certifications aren’t so important for a LEAD case manager, Morris said, as the willingness to work with each person without imposing predetermined solutions.

“The person before you has layers and layers and layers of trauma that probably hasn’t been understood or attended to, that hasn’t been healed,” Morris said. “You have to understand you can’t just reach in there and feel for the piece you want to fix.”

“That’s why we don’t work from an abstinence based philosophy,” Morris continued. “‘They need to stop using, that’s the problem.’ No. What we’re going to do is step it back. And have them have their best thinking, because they truly are the best knowers of what’s best for them in their life.”

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

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