In 2011, in an attempt to move away from the War on Drugs paradigm and to reduce gross racial disparities in police enforcement, LEAD® -- a new harm-reduction oriented process for responding to low-level offenses such as drug possession, sales, and prostitution -- was developed and launched in Seattle, WA. LEAD® was the result of an unprecedented collaboration between police, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, public defenders, political leaders, mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers and other service agencies, and business and neighborhood leaders -- working together to find new ways to solve problems for individuals who frequently cycle in and out of the criminal justice system under the familiar approach that relies on arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.
While tensions have risen between law enforcement and community members and civil rights advocates, LEAD® has led to strong alliances among traditional opponents in policy debates surrounding policing, and built a strong positive relationship between police officers and people on the street who are often a focus of police attention. Community public safety leaders rallied early and have remained staunch in their support for this less punitive, more effective, public-health-based approach to public order issues. LEAD® begins to answer the pressing question of what the community wants from the police with regard to public order problems by introducing an alternative evidence-based model.
for reconciliation & healing
An unplanned, but welcome, effect of LEAD® has been the reconciliation and healing it has brought to police-community relations.
How does LEAD work?
In a LEAD® program, police officers exercise discretionary authority at point of contact to divert individuals to a community-based, harm-reduction intervention for law violations driven by unmet behavioral health needs. In lieu of the normal criminal justice system cycle -- booking, detention, prosecution, conviction, incarceration -- individuals are instead referred into a trauma-informed intensive case-management program where the individual receives a wide range of support services, often including transitional and permanent housing and/or drug treatment. Prosecutors and police officers work closely with case managers to ensure that all contacts with LEAD® participants going forward, including new criminal prosecutions for other offenses, are coordinated with the service plan for the participant to maximize the opportunity to achieve behavioral change.
LEAD® holds considerable promise as a way for law enforcement and prosecutors to help communities respond to public order issues stemming from unaddressed public health and human services needs -- addiction, untreated mental illness, homelessness, and extreme poverty -- through a public health framework that reduces reliance on the formal criminal justice system.