With excessive secrecy and failed community outreach, the city has botched an experimental program to steer low-level drug users toward help and away from prison, according to a new report by community watchdogs.
The program is called LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. The city launched a pilot version of the program last November after criticism for locking up street prostitutes.
Two groups including local sex worker advocates, criminal justice reform activists, and Yale law and public health students — Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN) and the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership— Wednesday night released a scalding assessment of the city’s performance in the first nine months.
They attributed the failure in part to the city’s reluctance to share key data and potentially incur bad press; and in part to a program methodology that encourages police officers to act as social workers.
They released the report during a two-hour “teach-in” that brought together around 25 students and community activists in a ground-floor classroom at Yale’s Baker Hall at 100 Tower Pkwy.
Perhaps reflecting the disconnect between government program organizers and some of the community groups essential to its success, no city or local LEAD management representatives attended the meeting.
Those government officials involved also declined to discuss the program’s progress in response to questions from the Independent. Instead, mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer issued a statement earlier on Wednesday afternoon that promoted the city’s commitment to future community collaboration on the issue. Officials involved with the program have said during previous interviews that the city is adapting its approach to LEAD after a bumpier-than-expected start — which included last year’s death of the first person to participate in the program. More recently they all have claimed they cannot discuss any aspect of the program with the media because they need to protect the privacy of participants.
Officials originally said they aimed to involve 60 participants in the LEAD program. They now refuse to disclose how many they have succeeded in involving.
No Silver Bullet
Founded in Seattle and adopted as a two-year pilot in New Haven last November, LEAD is an experimental pre-arrest diversion program that seeks to provide case management and rehabilitative social services to people engaged in drug abuse, prostitution, and other non-violent street crimes.
“It’s not a silver bullet for everything,” said SWAN Director of Programming and Advocacy Evan Serio during Wednesday’s teach-in. “But this can be a program that can be implemented well and potentially decreases harms of the criminalization system that we have today.”
Or, to put it more bluntly, “We’re working towards a world where police and prisons are not necessary,” said Taiga Christie, a second-year Yale public health student who is one of the student leaders of the Global Health Justice Partnership’s LEAD investigation.
But in order to stop using prisons to address issues of addiction and mental health, Serio and Christie and everyone else who spoke up at Wednesday night’s meeting said, the city officials, police officers, and independent social service providers who have been administering LEAD to date have to seriously step up their engagement with New Haveners closest to the problems. That is, with people who struggle with and advocate for those who struggle with drug abuse and sex work.
Click here to download a copy of the full investigative report that SWAN and the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership put together on New Haven’s LEAD pilot.
“City officials embrace community discussion about this initiative and any input to come of it,” mayoral spokesperson Grotheer said in a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, “more specifically, CSA [Community Services Administration] officials understand Wednesday’s meeting is meant to educate and prepare the community for productive, future conversations about how New Haven’s LEAD pilot program will benefit the identified neighborhoods in the city.
“A New Haven LEAD delegation representing CSA, the NHPD, community providers, and SWAN attended a workshop last week with the LEAD Albany team,” he continued, “which has been providing services in that community for several years, to listen and learn about the history of LEAD Albany and the lessons learned through its partnerships.
“New Haven remains committed to implementation of the LEAD model and has invited community agencies, partners, and other stakeholders to attend community leadership discussions, the first of which is scheduled for October 23.”
LEAD Recap, In Theory
Third-year Yale law student Devin Race and second-year Yale public health student Sophie Wheelock Wednesday night walked participants through LEAD’s implementation in the Elm City to date, while Serio gave an overview of the program’s general methodology and goals.
“At its core,” Serio said, “it recognizes that arrests and incarceration do not provide services or solutions to the core issues that are sending people to break the law.”
For that reason, he said, LEAD seeks to intervene at the intersection of typically arrestable offenses and behaviors that are a sign of mental health or substance abuse issues.
He said that in cities where LEAD is in place, such as Seattle and Albany and Santa Fe, when people who commit crimes like shoplifting or prostitution in order to support a drug addiction are picked up by the police, they’re given the option to meet with a case worker instead of being arrested. That case worker, he said, can then help the person engaged in the program navigate local social service providers in an attempt to find stable housing, employment, and medication-assisted treatment.
Serio stressed that LEAD is only successful when community groups who represent people with relevant, lived experiences like drug use, poverty, sex work, and homelessness are included in the program’s organizational leadership.
“Those people need to be at the table in order for this to actually go anywhere,” he said. If the program is only run by city officials and social service providers independent of community participation, he said, “that would just be a glossy veneer put over it with a trademark that can be used as a buzzword.”
LEAD Recap, In Practice
Which, Wheelock and Race stated directly and indirectly throughout their presentation, seems to be the case in New Haven. At least, that was their takeaway from over seven months spent piecing together a comprehensive working knowledge of the Elm City’s LEAD program through email requests, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and constant pestering of city officials.
“There has been a considerable lack of responsiveness,” Wheelock said about trying to get information from the city about the local pilot program.
She said that the city declined to comment on the SWAN-Global Health Justice Partnership report when the students sent it over two weeks ago. After months of asking, the researchers received from the city an electronic bundle of documents outlining the pilot program’s organizational workflow just half an hour before the start of Wednesday night’s meeting.
Based on FOIA requests for state and federal grant documents, Wheelock and Race found that the city signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Apr. 3, 2017 with the police department, Cornell Scott Hill Health Center, the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, and a handful of community partners, including SWAN, in its application for money to start a LEAD program in New Haven.
On May 1, 2017, the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DHMAS) awarded Cornell Scott $200,000 for two years of arrest diversion services, and that the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) awarded the city $75,000 on Sep. 22, 2017 to be put towards the development of a LEAD program.
Wheelock and Race divided their concerns with New Haven’s LEAD pilot program into seven buckets.
First, they said, is that LEAD management doesn’t include people with lived experience of arrest and incarceration.
Based on the April 2017 MOU, Race said, the city committed to including SWAN and other community groups in decision-making roles in the development and roll out of the pilot.
“They started operating in Nov. 2017,” said SWAN Executive Director Beatrice Codianni. “We haven’t been asked to the table since then.”
Christine, who said that she has been homeless for the past two-and-a-half years and that she currently works as a sex worker in Fair Haven to support her drug addiction, said that she has regular encounters with the police that are humiliating and ultimately unhelpful.
“They tell you to move,” she said, “and when you have nowhere else to go, I’m not sure where you’re supposed to move. You might be able to go here, you might be able to go there, but at the end of the day, we have nowhere to go. So they’re pretty much just herding us around like sheep.”
She said that since last October she has received three misdemeanors for loitering in a drug zone, but that those citations do little to help get her and other sex workers with substance abuse issues off the street.
“It’s clear that the police are not going to be able to change on their own,” Race said. He said that they need a different perspective, one from community activists and people who experience drug abuse and prostitution first hand, in order to best learn how to engage with the people they’re seeking to divert from arrest.
According to Race, the people currently in charge of the city’s LEAD program are state prosecutor David Strollo, New Haven LEAD Project Director Cynthia Watson (who was hired in September), the Community Foundation’s Caprice Mendez, Assistant Chiefs Racheal Cain and Otoniel Reyes from the city police department, Loel Meckel from the state Department of Mental Health Services, Ben Metcalf and Daena Murphy from Cornell Scott Hill Health Center, LEAD Engagement Specialist Monica Givens from Columbus House, and LEAD community liaisons Jesus Garzon Ospina and Rasheen Murphy.
Who Needs To Know?
Second, Wheelock said, is that the city has been less than transparent with how it has conducted the LEAD pilot to date.
She said that the city’s grant application to the DOJ says that the New Haven LEAD Task Force will publish meeting notes online. She said that no one at SWAN or the Global Health Justice Partnership has been able to locate those meeting notes.
“This is just as fake as a three-dollar bill,” said local social justice advocate Barbara Fair.
“Take this to the Board of Alders,” said local attorney Patricia Kane.
“If this program was going to be accountable to the city,” Wheelock said, “they need to make the minutes of their meetings, the operational protocol and framework that they’re following, all of that information needs to be publicly accessible.”
Their third, fourth, and fifth complaints with the program got at LEAD’s promotion of increased contact between law enforcement and people with substance abuse and mental health issues.
Race said that the city pilot program’s diversion criteria (that is, the offenses that officers look out for when figuring out whom to divert towards the program) include possession of a controlled substance, non-violent misdemeanors, non-violent city ordinance violations, and other drug, alcohol, or mental health-related offenses.
Race said that anecdotal evidence from service providers indicated that, even before LEAD was in place, local police officers often transported people who were using drugs to the ER rather than arresting them.
“That’s someone who might just need social services,” Race said about people picked up for engaging in any of the low-level offenses covered by the LEAD criterion. “And social services should be delivered outside of the context of the police and criminal system entirely.”
And on the flip side, Race said, people with more serious criminal records are permanently excluded from participating in the program. For example, anyone who has been convicted of residential burglary or home invasion is ineligible for pre-arrest diversion through LEAD.
“LEAD is only helpful for those who don’t have a record,” he said.
Instead, Wheelock said, almost all of the program participants to date have come through something called “social contacts,” a method by which police officers can recommend that someone join the LEAD program independent of any arrestable defense.
She said that as of April 2018, which is the last date that the city provided LEAD participation information on, there were 22 people in the program. Twenty, she said, had been added as social contacts.
“When this happens, a social contact referral, the police need to have a belief that the person has a high likelihood of a future arrest,” she said.
“So we have psychic policing now,” Kane replied with a despairing laugh.
The group’s sixth complaint with the city’s LEAD program had to do with its “clawback” provision, by which people who do not check in with their case manager within 30 days of pre-arrest diversion are subject to being arrested on the original charges that were not initially pursued by the police.
And lastly, the group questioned whether the mayor’s office and the CSA are the best places from which to run this program. They noted that Seattle’s LEAD is run by a public defenders association. Albany’s is run by a civil rights group committed to criminal justice reform and substance abuse treatment.
“We don’t see how a shift is going to happen” with New Haven’s city staff running the program, Wheelock said.
After the presentation, the group debated the merits of having a LEAD program at all in New Haven, especially if it would only encourage more encounters between law enforcement and people committing low-level drug and sex work offenses.
“I have a fundamental issue with law enforcement being involved in any provision of social services,” said the Connecticut Bail Fund Co-Director Ana María Rivera-Forastieri.
“I don’t understand how we could have broken windows and LEAD here at the same time,” said Fair.
Kane argued that LEAD is a worthwhile program, when run correctly, and that greater public attention and pressure could salvage it yet less than a year into New Haven’s pilot.
But ultimately, many in the group landed in the same place as Alice Miller, the co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership, who said that the city appeared to be latching onto a progressive-sounding and grant-attractive name in LEAD without putting in the time, effort, and resources necessary to make sure that it actually works.
“What we have here,” she said, “is the stream of money, the sexiness, and no accountability.”
Correction: This article incorrectly stated that Alejandro Pabon-Rey is still a LEAD community liaison for the Hill South neighborhood. He stopped serving in that role in the spring.