A New Approach - Pre-Arrest Diversion
When a law enforcement officer comes into contact with a member of the public, it is often at a moment of high anxiety or crisis. These crisis situations are often the symptoms of obscure and underlying issues that are often difficult or impossible for an officer to identify in the moment. Although the root cause may be difficult to identify in the moment, it is clear to me, that unless we do a better job of identifying and addressing these issues we will not break the cycle of incarceration.
Over my twenty-five year law enforcement career one thing that has persistently frustrated me is the lack options available to an officer during these highly stressful situations. As law enforcement officers we have been given the authority to arrest individuals that have violated the law or to take someone into custody if they need to be seen by a mental health professional. These are important tools when the safety of an individual or the public is at stake, but are they always the best answer? I believe there are many times when these tools are not the best option to address the complicated and delicate family and life issues that we encounter. My frustration with a lack of resources and my belief that there must be a better way to approaching these social issues, led me to begin seeking alternatives.
In late August while conducting online research on pre-arrest diversion programs I located the website for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program operating in King County, Washington. The program is a collaborative community safety effort that offers law enforcement an alternative to booking people into jail for criminal activity that stems from unmet behavioral health needs or poverty. That site led me to the LEAD National Support Bureau site where I learned that there was a LEAD program being operated in Bangor, Maine. I reached out to Bangor P.D. and learned that their program had been started in partnership with Heath Equity Alliance (HEAL). I contacted the Executive Director of HEAL to inquire about the possibility of expanding the pre-arrest diversion program into Waldo County and found that he was very interested in discussing the possibility.
On September 3rd a group of representatives from Health Equity Alliance, the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office, and Maine Pretrial Services gathered to begin discussing how we could develop our own LEAD program. During the meeting members of Health Equity Alliance explained that LEAD was designed to identify and address an individual’s needs through targeted case management services. Representatives from Maine Pretrial Services, who are contracted by the Sheriff’s Office to provide pretrial services, post-conviction alternatives, and diversion options, stated that they believed many on their caseload could benefit from the targeted case management services provided by Health Equity Alliance. We met for over an hour discussing the first steps we should take, covering a lot of ground, we agreed to meet again to plan the next steps.
Our second meeting occurred on September 25th, when our group met to continue our discussion and review data collected by Maine Pre-trial Services. Our conversation quickly revealed that there was a significant need in Waldo County for the targeted case management services that are at the core of the LEAD program. Health Equity Alliance agreed that they would place a case manager into their Belfast office on a part-time bases to begin building a caseload. We had taken our first steps toward laying a foundation for a pre-arrest diversion program in Waldo County.
On the morning of September 26th, I began my day at the Sheriff’s Office in the usual manner, with a cup of coffee and a review of email. My attention quickly turned to an email from Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). LEAP’s Program Manager, who I met at a conference, had sent me an email about a scholarship opportunity, for a team of up to four people, to attend the upcoming Police, Treatment, and Community Collaborative (PTACC) conference. I researched PTACC and discovered that the organization was a collaborative of law enforcement, behavioral health, community, advocacy, research, and public policy professionals all working to expand behavioral health and social service options for law enforcement through diversion. The 2nd annual conference would showcase established pre-arrest diversion programs from across the country. It would also provide law enforcement agencies like the Sheriff’s Office, who was at the beginning stages of developing a program, access to experts from across the country to assist us with the development of our programs.
Pre-arrest diversion programs are a new and emerging area in law enforcement and only a few areas around the country have started these new initiatives. The programs fit neatly with some of the other efforts being made especially with those areas utilizing co-responder models such as Portland, Maine Police Department. Some cities such as Eugene, Oregon have taken the co-responder model to the next level with their CAHOOTS model. The conference seemed like a fantastic opportunity for us to learn about these new programs.
I reached out to Health Equity Alliance, Restorative Justice of the Mid-Coast, and the District Attorney’s Office to check interest in attending the conference. With interest and support from all our key agencies, I completed the scholarship application, submitted it for review and waited. On October 10th I received an email notifying us that we had received a scholarship award and planning began for attending the conference. The conference took place from November 10th to the 13th and was held in Ponte Verda, Florida.
(Pictured: Ashley Brown of HEAL, Chief Deputy Jason Trundy of the Waldo County Sheriff's Office, Natasha Irving District Attorney of District 6, and Sarah Mattox of the Restorative Justice of the Mid-Coast.)
The conference kicked off on Sunday evening with a keynote address from Dr. Rashad Saafir
Of the Bobby Wright Center in Chicago. Dr. Saafir shared about the services provided at the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center, locate on the Westside of Chicago, and the relationship the center has with local law enforcement personnel.
The remainder of the Sunday evening schedule was devoted to a team presentation regarding the Yellow Line Project, a pre-booking diversion program operated in Blue Earth County, Minnesota. Over the next two days of the conference, during the multiple breakout sessions, our group would have several opportunities to meet with the Yellow Line Project group and learn about the inner workings of their program.
Over the next two days there were a series of plenary sessions on a variety of topics surrounding pre-arrest diversion programming. Between the speakers our group participated in numerous break out sessions that allowed for small group discussion where we could learn about what others are doing across the country. We were also able to have one on one discussion with subject matter experts in a wide range of topics. Our group was able to meet with a representative from the Bureau of Justice Assistance where we learned of numerous federal grants that we could apply for to fund some of our local projects. We also met with Tom Olk, CEO of Civil Citation Network, to learn about his diversion program that operates in Florida.
Monday and Tuesday were long days but they seemed to fly past as we absorbed all the information that was available. Our group had several opportunities to discuss the information we gathered and how it could be used to further our own efforts in the mid-coast. It was encouraging to see the many communities across the country that have already started pre-arrest diversion efforts. These programs all took on a unique shape that fit the individuality of each jurisdiction, but they shared the common goal of diverting people away from incarceration to treatment and services.
Pre-arrest diversion programs a We all left the conference with new ideas and a renewed commitment to collaborating on our local projects. In the near future I will be sharing stories as our planning turns into functioning programs.