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Rantz: Cops skeptical of ‘ludicrous’ King County plan to legalize drugs, push treatment

(King County Sheriff's Office)

Police reaction is mixed following the King County’s decision to promote a program that ditches automatic jail time for rehab and services — LEAD. But there’s no mixed reaction to the perception that King County just decriminalized drugs: cops say it’s the wrong move.

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Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is a seven-year-old plan offering rehab and services to low level offenders, including people caught with under a gram of any illegal drug, with the idea that this is the best pathway to help that person to reform their life.

Most cops I spoke to on this story have indicated that LEAD can work in some circumstances, but they all have slammed the decision to forgo most charges for people who possess less than one gram of any illegal substance.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg argues this move will help get people off drugs and, with it, cut down with drug-related crime. But there isn’t much independent data to support his claim yet.

At the same time, Satterberg has indicated he will stop charging most cases of possession because “quite frankly, it doesn’t work…” And since he is up for re-election this November, some believe his push is more about satisfying a Progressive Seattle voter base while also claiming drug crime is down.

Officers consistent in their reaction

I spoke with three members of law enforcement for this story: two Seattle police officers and one member of the King County Sheriff’s Office. None have been cleared to discuss this with me, so all have been granted anonymity. And, for all, there was a general skepticism of the program.

“Satterberg is trying to get re-elected, and trying to become more liberal like the Socialist Darren Morris [his opponent],” one Seattle police officer tells me. “LEAD is okay for some things, just like drug court. Maybe for a first-time offender, or somebody struggling who really wants help. But this decision by Satterberg to basically decriminalize heroin, meth, and crack is ludicrous. [I’m] definitely moving out of Washington when I retire…”

Though Satterberg recently made this announcement, cops have long claimed he was already refusing to prosecute criminals caught with illegal substances. They would complain of seeing the same faces on the streets, committing the same types of crimes to pay for their drug addiction, and there would seemingly be no consequences. For some cops, they’ve questioned whether or not they should constantly pursue these criminals when their work is being ignored by the prosecutor’s office.

The officer tells me it’s “…very challenging to supervise a squad of officers demoralized by not being able to enforce the law.”

Some of this sentiment is echoed by a member of the King County Sheriff’s Office who reached out to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH after Satterberg made his announcement.

“Essentially, all drugs are now legal in small amounts,” he explained. “This isn’t a new program. What is new is the recent change in following standards by the prosecutor’s office.”

Unintended consequences

It’s worth noting the unintended consequences of the LEAD program and Satterberg announcement. One issue some have raised is that, now that you know you won’t be charged for possessing under one gram of, say, heroin, a dealer may adapt his or her deals so that they never have more than a gram on their person. Perhaps it’s inefficient, but it’s a way to stay out of jail.

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Another is that, without fear of arrest, why would an addict, who doesn’t want help, be willing to go through the program?

“Trouble with not prosecuting low level stuff is that it removes incentives for people to go through LEAD and get treatment,” a second officer tells me. “If the choice is treatment/sobriety vs. jail, people will choose LEAD. If the choice is LEAD vs no jail time/no sentence, [those] folks will just keep using.”

“LEAD is a great carrot, but we can’t turn our stick into a feather,” he warns. “Ultimately, we have to break cycles of addiction to break cycles of arrest. We can’t just stop prosecuting crimes then look at numbers and say look we have less drug crime.”

Remember, Seattleites are dealing with property crime where addicts are becoming criminals by breaking into cars and homes to steal items to sell, that ends up feeding their addiction. There is a concern that those crimes will continue by not going after repeat offenders and by not arresting people with the drugs on their person, they’re letting someone go who may be committing crimes to feed their addition.

Show me LEAD evidence

County leaders are excited. But is there any proof LEAD actually works?

Proponents claim a UW study backs their assertions. But a closer look at the study reveals there’s not much meaningful long-term, replicable data. At least, not yet. There’s just one study and the results are three years old.

Short term, parts of this study look promising, such as LEAD participants being less likely to have an arrest warrant out. But there are also some red flags: they only looked at 203 individuals in the LEAD program, LEAD participants had a higher rate of death (4 percent) than the control group (2 percent), and there was no significant statistical difference between them and the control group when it came to non-warrant arrests.

And, of course, there is the discussion in the actual study that proponents completely ignore in most public declarations that LEAD is a success. According to the study:

It is important to bear in mind that the Seattle West Precinct was subject to policy changes during the LEAD evaluation time period, which could have affected both the LEAD and control groups’ rates of arrest. It is therefore possible that more focused enforcement—and not necessarily increased criminal activity—was responsible for increases in the prevalence of arrests in the control group.

And in the years since the study, surely there have been changes in enforcement (or lack thereof) that warrants additional data from independent experts. Indeed, one of the members of the LEAD Evaluation Advisory Committee is a local activist with a clear bias.

Does this mean LEAD is a failure? By no means. They report: “These larger, systemic changes, however, would not account for the LEAD group’s drop in arrest prevalence, which would have been expected to reflect the same environmental conditions as the control group.”

But the caveat is important, which is why one study shouldn’t be given the weight local leaders, eager for it to work, are giving it.

You can read the full study here.

And as they figure out if this program works, King County should better communicate with law enforcement who remain skeptical — a piece of this that county leaders tend to not pay much public attention to.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday mornings from 6-9am on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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