Two New Haven police officers found Mark Cochran, 55 — the first person targeted for help in an experimental program to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail — slumped over and intoxicated behind Trinity Church on the Green.
It was a Thursday in mid-December. The police called an ambulance, and, when it arrived, Cochran picked himself up and walked over to the car of his own strength.
As the ambulance ferried him to Yale-New Haven Hospital, Cochran, who had struggled for years with homelessness and substance abuse, coded. Medical personnel on board were not able to resuscitate him.
Cochran was pronounced dead at the hospital soon after the ambulance arrived.
That was the story of how New Haven lost its first and, thus far, only participant in the new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, an experimental pre-arrest diversion initiative that seeks to direct low-level drug offenders from the criminal justice system and towards addiction specialists, case workers, and other social service providers who may be able to help participants find stable housing and employment.
Downtown top cop Lt. Mark O’Neill and Downtown LEAD community liaison Jesus Garzon Ospina informed neighbors of Cochran’s passing on Tuesday night during the regular monthly meeting of the Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team (DWSCMT). Tuesday night’s meeting was held in the basement program room of the main branch of the public library, as opposed to at the team’s regular meeting spot on the second floor of City Hall.
The city’s Community Services Administration (CSA) and police department, along with the Columbus House, the Cornell Scott Hill Health Center and the State’s Attorney’s office, launched a two-year, federally funded pilot version of the program in the Hill and Downtown neighborhoods in late November.
They hope to have 60 participants in the program by the end of 2018. Six weeks in, they have managed to enroll only one tentative participant, Cochran, who had opted into the program after being picked up by the police for trespassing on the Green on Dec. 13.
Cochran had a long criminal history of relatively minor offenses, including criminal trespassing and breach of peace. O’Neill said Cochran was the perfect candidate for the program, as his crimes were low-level and related to his addictions and homelessness.
Cochran was taken to the South Central Rehabilitation Center at 232 Cedar St. upon opting into the program. He received several days of detox, but was soon back on the streets and out of LEAD’s field of awareness.
Garzon Ospina, as the program’s community liaison, was charged with walking around the Green to try to find Cochran and convince him to reconsider the program. After opting in, Cochran had 30 days to finish the intake paperwork and formally begin the program with his LEAD case worker. If he did not fully enter the program after 30 days, the police would put out a summons for his arrest for his initial violation of trespassing.
“During the holiday break, it wasn’t cold or snowing, and I tried walking around the Green,” Garzon Ospina said. He is currently a freshman at Gateway Community College. “The police had given me a vague description of Mark as someone with a beard, who was always drinking, and always had a book with him or was always talking with someone.”
Garzon Ospina said that he looked around the Green, but to no avail. He said that when he hadn’t found Cochran by the end of the year, he decided to just tell the LEAD coordinators at their next regularly scheduled meeting in early January 2018 that he could not find Cochran. At that meeting, he learned that Cochran had died about a week after he had initially opted in to the program.
“That guy, I tried for a year to get him a place to live,” said local philanthropist Wendy Hamilton at Tuesday night’s meeting. She did not know that Cochran had died.
“I told the nurse and the doctor at Yale that, if you don’t keep him in the hospital and fix him, he going to die. And he did!”
O’Neill said that, a month and a half into the pilot, New Haven’s LEAD coordinators are reconsidering how best to get low-level drug offenders engaged with the program.
He said that New Haven has been in touch with LEAD coordinators in Seattle and Albany. They too struggled to get people into the program when it first launched, O’Neill said. He acknowledged that New Haven is already six weeks in and off to a somewhat rocky start.
He said that New Haven’s LEAD coordinators will shift more attention to finding participants through social contacts rather than through just pre-arrest diversions.
The difference, he said, is that if someone is picked up for a low-level violation, that person is not allowed to join the program if she or he has a more serious rap sheet. People convicted of felonies or burglaries are not allowed to join LEAD, he said, because the program is designed for non-violent, low-level drug offenders.
However, the city can also bring people into the program through social contacts, or referrals from friends and family. The criminal history requirements are not as strict for social contacts, O’Neill said, because the police are not diverting those candidates from a particular crime. They are simply enrolling someone in need of help who has come to the program voluntarily.
For his part, Garzon Ospina said that his goal is to get involved with potential LEAD participants much earlier in the process, so that he can maintain a constant level of contact with them as they consider joining the program.
“I didn’t get involved with this case very directly,” Garzon Ospina said about Cochran. He had never met Cochran personally, and only spent time searching for him on the Green. “Hopefully, with the next person, I’ll be able to get involved earlier on.”
Garzon Ospina said that he is currently in communication with someone he met outside the Christian Science Reading Room on Chapel Street. He said that earlier in January he spoke for an hour with that man about the benefits of joining the program. Garzon Ospina said that he is reluctant to join because he had had a bad experience with Columbus House.
Garzon Ospina recently visited the man at the hospital, both to talk about the program, and just to let him know that he cares. “I made it very clear to him that, program or not, I care about him as a person.”