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Seattle LEAD program wants to expand beyond referrals from police

Jesse Benet, deputy director of the Public Defender Association, speaks to a colleague while working at his desk in the Co-LEAD program offices in Seattle. Co-LEAD grew from the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

It’s not a divorce from police, it’s like an open marriage — that’s how LEAD co-founder Lisa Daugaard describes a change to King County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program currently, being discussed by the city council. She says she also has the support of SPD Chief Carmen Best, to create a new option for referring people to LEAD that doesn’t involve police.

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“We have reached the point, and this is a natural evolution and one, that we predicted 10 years ago might happen, where the police role in responding to public order issues involving people with behavioral health problems has been reduced,” Daugaard said.

The LEAD program allows police to divert low-level offenders who are either already in or out of custody to services, rather than having them face charges and prosecution. This is designed to keep them out of the revolving door of the criminal justice system.

For multiple reasons, including staffing issues under current at SPD assignment levels and new limits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Daugaard says officers have not been able to engage with as many people who might be good candidates for the program lately.

“We’ve just found that referrals that used to be coming in at a much higher level from police aren’t, so in order to respond to problems that are real and people in need, we need another door besides just police referring those in or out of custody,” Daugaard explained.

That third door involves allowing community referrals.

“Everybody from the Downtown Seattle Association to the fire department, to a prosecutor who prosecuted someone, they’re about to get out of custody, and the prosecutor knows that the person is going to struggle and commit additional crimes,” Daugaard said, noting community organizations would also be able to make referrals.

Daugaard says only being able to accept referrals from police has gotten in the way of getting people the help they need quickly. That forces them to take extra days when someone in need is brought to their attention from someone in the community, to then go and present the situation to police and ask them to make a referral.

This change is currently front and center in discussions about transforming police duties at the city council level, but Daugaard says it is not because the LEAD program asked for it. She’s also quick to point out that there are experts leading the conversation on other reforms. LEAD operates as an existing resource that can be part of the solution.

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Daugaard says they’re encouraging other jurisdictions they work with to embrace this third door option, and allow community referrals to the diversion program.

However, Daugaard stresses this is in no way means they’re looking to cut ties with police, who she says must still be able to make these referrals when they encounter a potential LEAD candidate in need.

“That is our core mission: Make sure that people in need who (police) do encounter, who need to not go to jail, don’t have to, but creating that option so that if officers aren’t involved and don’t think that they should be involved or can’t be involved, there can still be a response,” she explained.

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