You can’t try something new without making mistakes.
So reasoned managers of an experimental city initiative to divert low-level drug users toward help and away from prison. They said they’re learning from those mistakes — and making progress.
That’s the message that three managers of the city’s new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program delivered in an hour-long interview with the Independent Thursday in the offices of the Harp administration’s Community Services Administration (CSA) on the second floor of City Hall.
They gave an update on their progress in the wake of community criticism about LEAD’s rollout .
The CSA (which encompasses all city government’s social service departments) is responsible for LEAD. Both the CSA and the program are firmly under new leadership nearly a year after the pilot officially launched. The managers said they’re confident that the weeks and months ahead will see greater levels of transparency, community participation, and pre-arrest diversions for people who commit low-level crimes related to their struggles with addiction.
“It’s a pilot,” said Dakibu Muley, the administrator of the department, sitting alongside LEAD Program Manager Cynthia Watson and CSA Manager of Community Development Ayishea Denson. “It’s intended for us to make mistakes, and to figure out what’s best.”
The interview came one week after community watchdogs, sex worker advocates, and Yale law and public health students held a highly critical teach-in on the city’s adoption of LEAD.
They criticized city management of the grant-funded program for not being transparent about how many people the program has served since launching in Nov. 2017, and for not including community members with lived experience of substance abuse and sex work in the local program’s weekly leadership meetings.
The interview also coincided with reports that the police department has informally made progress in winning the trust and cooperation of advocates for street sex workers, who helped the cops arrest an alleged serial sexual assaulter.
49 Helped So Far
LEAD, based on a national model that has been adopted in Seattle, Santa Fe, and Albany, is designed to divert low-level drug offenders who voluntarily choose to participate away from the criminal justice system and towards an array of housing, mental health, employment, and addiction services.
Last year, Cornell Scott Hill Health Center received a $200,000 state grant and the city received a $75,000 federal grant to develop a two-year-pilot implementation of LEAD in the Hill North, the Hill South, and Downtown neighborhoods, with the grant funding expiring in April 2019.
Muley and Watson said that the city’s LEAD pilot has served a total of 49 people through the beginning of October. Two of those participants entered the program through arrest diversions, meaning that they were picked up by the police for committing a non-violent misdemeanor or for possession of a controlled substance and chose to opt into the LEAD program rather than be arrested.
Forty-three of the program’s participants have entered LEAD through “social contacts,” a non-diversionary method for people who have not committed any crimes but whom police officers or social workers or other community members believe would benefit from participating in LEAD.
Watson said that she is not sure whether the four other program participants came in through diversions or social contacts, and that she and an intern are currently researching the records collected on those participants to figure out how they joined.
“I think we want to make sure that we’re offering the service to as many people that fit the criteria and are in search of needed services,” Muley said in response to a question about how many people LEAD hopes to serve by the end of the pilot in April. “A bottom line for us is nonexistent.”
Watson said that she did not know off hand how many of those 49 people are currently, actively engaged with the program and working with the program’s two engagement specialists based out of Cornell Scott Hill Health Center and Columbus House.
Muley said that, for much of this spring and early summer, he was playing catch up on how New Haven’s LEAD pilot was structured and who its key stakeholders were and are. Muley inherited the pilot two months after it launched when he replaced Martha Okafor as the head of CSA in Feb. 2018.
Watson said that she, too, is relatively new to the program, having been hired by the city with LEAD grant funding just this past August.
“A lot of work in my first couple months was just trying to unpack where we were as a city this initiative,” Muley said.
He said that one of the first key administrative changes he made to LEAD came in June, when he divided the program’s interagency leadership team into two groups: a policy group, focused on high-level decision making and laying out a vision for how LEAD should work during the duration of the pilot, and an operations group, focused on the day-to-day interactions between engagement specialists and city residents struggling with addiction.
The policy group meets on the first and third Fridays of the month at Cornell Scott’s offices on Columbus Avenue. The operational group meets on the second and fourth Fridays of every month at that same location.
The groups consist of representatives from Cornell Scott, Columbus House, CSA, the state prosecutor’s office, the New Haven police, the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, Yale researchers, and LEAD community liaisons Jesus Garzon Ospina and Rasheen Murphy. (Denson said that former Hill South community liaison Alejandro Pabon-Rey left the job earlier this summer and now works for the state.)
“This will not be successful if the community is not a part of this,” Muley said. “We’re not withholding from the community. We want to make sure that this is not something that is controlled by any one or two entities. This is a community effort.”
He said that he has been making the rounds of different community management teams, introducing the many services that CSA offers around homelessness, prison reentry, and elderly needs while also talking up LEAD.
He and Watson have planned a “community leadership team” meeting for Oct. 23 at John C. Daniels School from 6 to 7 p.m., where they hope to present on the latest with LEAD to some of the community groups like Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN) that the city signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with last year in which they promised to include those groups in positions of Lead leadership.
Muley said that the Oct. 23 meeting should lead to the permanent appointment of a community advocate to LEAD’s policy group.
After the late October meeting, he said, city managers of LEAD as well as visiting officials from LEAD’s National Support Bureau will visit New Haven to train six new Hill and Downtown police officers as well as community representatives on how the pre-arrest diversions and social contacts should work.
Muley said that around 33 local police officers were trained in how to use the program’s intake form last November. But some of those officers have retired or resigned. Now the city’s program managers are looking to get a new group of officers up to speed on how to participate in LEAD.
Muley, Watson, and Denson also answered a few specific criticisms leveled against the city last week during the LEAD teach-in.
Muley called the mayor’s office an appropriate entity to manage LEAD in New Haven because city officials were the ones who had the foresight last year to visit Seattle’s LEAD operation and recognize the importance of trying out a pre-arrest diversion program right here in the Elm City.
“The city recognized the need to be forward thinking and reaching out to try to secure such a grant,” he said. “They recognized that innovation was needed and a change was needed.”
Watson said that the city is sticking to the national model’s recommendations that LEAD should only address people who commit certain low-level addiction-related offenses, and that the program should exclude, for now, people who have more serious criminal records.
“We’re trying to stay true to what the model is saying,” Watson said. “The model is based on low-level crime. In a pilot, one of the things you want to test is: so what is the best fit?”
In theory New Haven’s LEAD pilot allows police officers to reopen arrest warrants for diverted participants who do not check in with their assigned social worker within 30 days of opting into the program. In practice, that has not happened in the Elm City, Denson said.
“It’s not concrete,” she said about the actual time limit that the city uses to determine when a person who once opted into the program is officially considered done with LEAD, whether because they’ve dropped all communications with the city or because they’re achieved more permanent housing and a more stable level of services.
In response to a question about transparency, Watson and Denson said the policy and operational working group’s meeting minutes will be posted to a public-facing website soon once Watson and an intern finishing combing through the many pages created to date and redacting names and any personal identifying information for program participants.
Muley said that, after the grants end in April 2019, the city will report out to state and federal funders on how the pilot went and seek to secure new funding to roll out LEAD to other city neighborhoods beyond the Hill and Downtown.