A Gateway Community College student who first came to New Haven over 15 years ago as a refugee fleeing violence in Colombia has been tapped to help low-level, non-violent drug offenders on the New Haven Green avoid arrest and receive stable housing, employment and medical rehabilitation.
At Tuesday night’s regular monthly meeting of the Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team (DWSCMT) on the second floor of City Hall, the 20-year-old political science student at Gateway Community College, Jesus Garzon Ospina, introduced himself as the neighborhood’s new community liaison for the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.
LEAD is an experimental pre-arrest diversion initiative that the city launched at the end of November in the Hill and Downtown neighborhoods. The program, which was founded in Seattle and has been adopted in Albany, Baltimore, and Bangor, Maine, seeks to provide case management and rehabilitative social services instead of arrests and incarceration for low-level offenders engaged in drug abuse, prostitution and other non-violent street crimes.
The central premise of the program is that drug abuse is a mental health problem, as opposed to a law enforcement problem, and that health care workers and social workers are better equipped than police officers and prison systems to help people recover from their addictions.
As the neighborhood’s community liaison for the city’s two-year, federally funded LEAD pilot, Garzon Ospina will work with neighbors and Downtown police officers to identify people who can use the program’s help, and offer support to participants and their families as they go through the program. (Click here to read about the LEAD community liaison for the Hill neighborhood.)
Garzon Ospina first came to New Haven in 2002 after his family fled Cali, Colombia, because of threats made to his father, who was in the Colombian military. His family found sanctuary in Guilford, then in New Haven. He spent most of his childhood growing up in the city’s Quinnipiac Meadows neighborhood and in West Haven.
He attended John C. Daniels School of International Communication for middle school and graduated from high school at Metropolitan Business Academy in 2016. (Click here to read more about Garzon Ospina’s background in this New Haven Independent article from 2011 about his summer as a 14-year-old “ball person” at the New Haven Open tennis tournament.)
“I’m one of those people who wants to change the world one way or another,” Garzon Ospina said after Tuesday night’s meeting, as he reflected on taking on the job as Downtown’s LEAD community liaison. He first heard about the program several months ago when someone from the management team came by Elm City Market, where he was working at the time, and asked if any of the part-time employees would be interested in applying.
“I’m a big fan of community-based policing,” he continued, “because I personally think that addiction is a mental health illness as opposed to a judicial problem. So this job works well with my beliefs.”
Garzon Ospina said that his family had a “small encounter” with the police when he was growing up, and that he has always been grateful that the officers took the time to talk through the problem with his family rather than charge anyone with a crime.
“They spoke with us, my family and I, and really brought all points to our attention,” Garzon Opsina said, without sharing any specific details about the encounter or the subsequent conversation with the officers, whom he praised as “facilitators.” “Ultimately, they helped us resolve an issue without an arrest.”
Garzon Ospina and Lt. Mark O’Neill, who serves as Downtown’s district commander, told the team that LEAD recently had its first New Havener opt into the program.
A 55-year-old man named Mark Cochran was picked up by the police for criminal trespassing last week while he was apparently intoxicated on the New Haven Green. O’Neill did not remember where the man had been caught trespassing.
The officer asked Cochran if he would like to participate in the LEAD pilot instead of being arrested; Cochran chose to opt in to the program. The officer then filled out the necessary LEAD opt-in form on the city’s internal data-sharing Veoci app, then brought Cochran to the Cornell Scott Hill Health Center at 232 Cedar St., which serves as LEAD’s intake center.
O’Neill and Garzon Ospina described this part of the LEAD process as the “warm handoff,” when a new participant is handed over by law enforcement to health care professionals to receive food and shelter and to fill out the necessary paperwork and consent forms indicating that they would like to participate in the program.
New participants have 30 days from the time that they are picked up by the police to complete the intake process, which includes identifying with a case worker the specific goals the participant would like to achieve through his or her involvement with LEAD. If the participant does not complete the intake process within 30 days, then the police will prepare an arrest warrant.
O’Neill stressed that participants can also enter the program via a “social contact,” as opposed to via engagement with a police officer, by reaching out directly to Garzon Ospina or the police force and letting them know that he or she would like to participate in the program. O’Neill said that he expects a second interested candidate to join the program via “social contact” this week.
Garzon Ospina said that, although Cochran opted in to the program last week, he has not yet finished filling out the necessary intake forms, and has subsequently gone “off the radar.” Garzon Ospina said that he plans on walking around the Green later this week to see if he can find Cochran and convince him to rejoin the program.
“At today’s LEAD meeting, I learned that Mark is an avid book reader,” Garzon Ospina said. “So I’m going to try to talk with him about books first and foremost, and then reintroduce the topic of LEAD to him.”