Seattle's Crazy Smart Approach to Drug Policing
Andre Witherspoon was a hair stylist before he became addicted to crack cocaine and heroin.
He tried plenty of treatments, many of them forced on him by social services and law enforcement, but none helped. He was selling drugs to fuel his own habit. He spent time in prison. He became homeless, sleeping on his feet, unable to go to shelters for the night because that would prevent him being able to find the next morning’s fix.
Two and a half years ago, at about 8pm in downtown Seattle, he was getting ready to sell some heroin when he was caught by a police officer on a bicycle. Witherspoon had been arrested, he told me, “about 65 times” before that. But this time was different.
The cycle cop was part of a new pilot program called Law-Enforcement Assisted Diversion – Lead – where police officers work closely with case managers to bring non-violent drug offenders into treatment, rather than booking them into a criminal justice system that often just makes things worse.
The officer told Witherspoon that he had a choice; either be arrested and go to jail, or enroll in the Lead program.
“I was rescued that day,” he said.
The concept of pre-arrest diversion – especially the part where police officers work closely with caseworkers and have a stake in the recovery, not just the capture and punishment of offenders – is new and unusual, but is making waves in criminal justice circles across the US.
It is still a pilot program, but several cities, including Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore and Santa Fe, are all now actively exploring exporting similar programs, and a team from New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s office visited Seattle on a fact-finding mission in January.
One of the key figures in the Lead program’s success is Lisa Daugaard. A public defender by trade, and deputy director of the Seattle Public Defender Association, she makes no secret of the belligerence which often exists between defenders like herself and prosecutors and law enforcement.
In 2001, Daugaard’s office started what became known as the Racial Disparity Project: a data-driven focus on drug-law enforcement as a driver of racial inequality in the justice system, which led to a legal challenge against Seattle police department.
“There was a lot of disproportionality,” admitted Jim Pugel, the chief deputy sheriff of King County. The situation continued, with the police defending themselves and the prosecutors’ office from the lawsuit, and continuing to arrest people, who would return to the same area as soon as they were released.
“No-one was getting anywhere, and we were spending all this money,” said Pugel. Finally, he said, exhausted, they sat down for a face-to-face meeting with Daugaard. “We don’t agree with you,” they said to her in exasperation, but if they were willing to consider doing drug enforcement differently, they wanted to know – what should they do?
In 2008, that meeting led to a deal. Daugaard would stop suing the department, and in return her organization would come on board to build a pilot program, exploring ways that defense attorneys, social services, local communities and crisis centers and – crucially – police and prosecutors could all work together.
Out of that deal, the Lead project was born.
Here’s how it works: within the pilot area, which centers around parts of the western district of central Seattle known as Belltown, low-level drug and prostitution offenders – of whom 80%-86% are homeless – are referred to the project’s case-workers by police, either at the point where they would otherwise be arrested, or separately, through a process called a “social referral”.
This can only work if police are fully on board with the project, and Daugaard said convincing rank-and-file officers to try things her way was one of the hardest barriers she had to overcome.
After the program started producing results, however, things began to get easier. Word spread. It turned out that, in many cases, cops on the beat were as unhappy as Daugaard was with the way the system forced them to put people into the grinding and expensive cogs of the criminal justice system.
To illustrate this, Daugaard showed me an email sent to her by a police officer outside the pilot area in Belltown. The officer asked if there was any way he could game the system to get someone into the program. “Do they have to be arrested in Belltown? If I were to arrest them in Belltown, would they qualify?”
The process of getting word out among the street community took time, too. “People on the streets at first found it hard to accept that police could be serious about helping,” Witherspoon said. But now, he said: “I’ve heard people on the street say ‘How can I get into the program?’” That was a shock. “Usually you have to break someone’s arm to get them into a program.”
Rob Brown, a sergeant with the Seattle police department, recently transferred from patrol cars to bike patrols, one of the teams involved in the pilot program. He said he was skeptical of Lead at first: “Oh yeah.” He said he was worried that the program would lack the ability to compel addicts into treatment. “Without the hammer – carrot; no stick – you wonder how much compliance you’re going to get.”
But according to Daugaard, this is in fact the crucial difference. Other interventions, she said, “are predicated on mandatory treatment. Lead is not. It’s about establishing trust.”
In the warm spring sunshine, Brown was on his patrol route. In Westlake Park – home, Brown said, of the busiest branch of Starbucks in the world – the bicycle cops know pretty much all of the street kids by name.
Officers chat amicably with the kids – straggle-haired teenagers, hanging out in the sunshine trying to smoke cigarettes without getting told off.
Officer TJ Burns is one of those in Brown’s unit, and has been working with Lead for several years. “We know everyone out here,” he told me. “My job is to stop and interact with these people. It’s a rarity in overall policing.”
That, he said, is why the early onus for the program fell on the bike units.
Burns said he was “100%” behind the program, but did express some doubts. “I think there has to be accountability,” he said. This area, he said, was an open-air drug emporium. “When I see somebody who I’m trying to give help to, [come] back down here – how is that helping them?”
Brown introduces some of the kids, or “Ave-Rats”, as they are colloquially known.
One of them, a skinny young blonde woman with piercings, called Caitlin, said she has been on the streets since she was 17. (She is about to turn 21.) Last night, she said, she and a few of the others slept just up the street, beside the Westlake mall.
Two nights ago, she said, someone was shot not 200 yards from here. (Sergeant Brown later confirmed this.) And in September, she said, her boyfriend Aaron was stabbed in the neck and only just avoided being paralyzed or killed.
She was very keen to get onto the program. “I got told Lead can help me stay clean and get housing,” she said.
Later, two other bike officers radioed Brown to tell him they had found a Lead participant, Eric, smoking crack in a doorway. They were going to arrest him – but as he was in Lead, they told him, they would contact his caseworker instead.
Was he was going to be in trouble with his caseworker? “Whoo-ee,” he whistled, with a grin. But was the program helpful? “It’s a blessing,” he said. But was it helping? “It is,” he said.
Handle with care
Witherspoon and Daugaard are clear that it is the program’s softly-softly approach – and its human scale – that sets it apart and helps it get results (Daugaard described her staff as “guerilla case-workers”). There is a feeling that participants can take all the time they need, rather than needing to be passed through the system to feed the figures.
After he was caught by police, Witherspoon said by way of example, he was given 30 days to enroll in the program. He forgot about it, but came back around, enrolling on the very last possible day.
“I’ve been in a lot of programs where case workers don’t handle people with care. It’s just a job,” said Witherspoon. “Lead are humanitarians.
“Some people may need to be in the Lead program for the rest of their lives,” Witherspoon said.
That may be all well and good for a small, manageable-sized pilot program – but how could you scale that to a citywide program even in a place the size of Seattle, let alone New York?
Daugaard said this was something they were hoping to figure out. “It cannot be a hero-based program,” she said. “It has to be about institutionalizing the different structures. We have to achieve culture-shift, and we can’t just order people to care.”
Other cities are taking note of her approach. In a project proposal released late in 2014, Michael Santangelo, the contract manager for the New York City department of health and mental hygiene, noted that on any given day “about 4,000 people in NYC correctional facilities receive treatment for behavioral health issues, many of whom remain incarcerated due to their inability to meet bail while they await hearing or trial”.
“For some of these individuals, incarceration could be avoided altogether, which would result in significant saving of public resources,” the proposal noted.
A Drug Policy Alliance report in February 2014 found that drug arrests fell more than 30% in the year after Lead was founded, and also pointed out a parallel decline in prison population – and while the first official figures assessing the success of the pilot program are due to be released on 8 April, they are expected to show even more positive drops in recidivism.
For Witherspoon, the effects of what he calls Lead’s “social incubation” are unequivocal. “There’s a great probability [that without Lead] I’d be out there in the rain right now looking for crack,” he said.
“They never once let me down. Not once.”