LEAD diversion program: New hope for dealing with low-level crime

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Misti Barrickman, left, and her case manager, Chris Cates.

“There were several times I shouldn’t have made it out of several situations,” says Misti Barrickman, her voice trembling as she wrings her hands back and forth. She thought she was going to die on the streets. One of her clearest memories is when, she says, she was working as a prostitute and a man picked her up, parked, tied a tie around her neck and she blacked out.

Barrickman says she woke up and started freaking out. She doesn’t think he intended to hurt her because he seemed worried, emptied $500 out of his wallet and offered her a ride home. “I was like, 'No! I just want to get out of here,'” she says.

It didn’t stop there. Barrickman overdosed three other times and was arrested multiple times. It was her last arrest when she was offered the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion pilot program. The LEAD program started in Fall 2011 with a unique concept — offering addicts services rather than locking them up right away. If police officers arrest someone with low-level drug or prostitution crimes and no violent record, they can choose to refer them to LEAD before the booking.

LEAD is now earning strong support from the city and King County. In a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Ed Murray, along with other officials like King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Police Department Chief Kathleen O'Toole pledged their support for the program, saying it will receive more attention from police.

"It's now time to take the program to the next level," Murray says. "We know jailing men and women with chronic addiction and mental illness isn't going to work, LEAD has provided a better way."

A two-year report, released by LEAD's evaluation team Wednesday, shows significant recidivism improvements in the short term and over the full two years.

During the six months following their entry into the program, the LEAD group had 60 percent lower odds of arrest than a control group.

“It’s much more meaningful to see the longer-term improvement,” says Lisa Daugaard, one of LEAD’s chief architects. Compared to the control group, the LEAD group was 58 percent less likely to be arrested over the entire course of the evaluation. As of September 2014, LEAD had 218 enrolled clients, and the report followed 205 of those individuals.

“It’s hard to know why we do things the old way because the case for the system as usual is very weak,” Daugaard says.

Before entering LEAD, Barrickman, 34, begged an officer who had stopped her on suspicion of prostitution to give her a chance.

“I told him I was going to die out there, I had never been given a chance, please give me a chance," she recalls.

About 15 or 20 minutes later he returned and told her about LEAD. Barrickman talked to her case manager that night, but it took a few weeks for her to actually get to his office.

Participants have 30 days to do the initial intake. If they don’t, the prosecutor moves forward with charging them in that case. Cathy Speelmon, LEAD program manager, says the case manager sits down with the client in that first meeting to talk about primary issues they are facing and their history around addiction, mental health and work experience.

The only thing participants are required to do is that intake assessment. They aren’t forced to be abstinent from drugs, come to meetings or meet with their case manager weekly — although those things are certainly encouraged.

“I wasn’t very good at being told what to do and it helped to know someone was there for me when I was ready,” Barrickman says.

It took her a good part of a year to decide she was really ready to make changes, and then another two months before she stopped smoking crack and shooting heroin.

What makes the program even more unusual is the broad collaboration of entities making it happen: Among them are the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the ACLU of Washington, neighborhood groups, the Downtown Seattle Association, Washington State Department of Corrections and the Public Defender Association’s Racial Disparity Project.

Initially, says LEAD's Speelmon, “We started out looking at each other across the table like 'yeah, I don’t know if this is going to work.'”

The relationship between social service providers and police isn’t traditionally regarded as a friendly one, but Speelmon says they continue to learn from one another. Police officers are texting case managers telling them if they see clients downtown. They sit and have conversations with prosecutors making final decisions on charges.

She says they can have unexpected disagreements: “Sometimes a case manager is just like, 'I think you need to just arrest him at this point,' and the officer is saying, 'Well I don’t know if I want to do that.' It’s really amazing that we have actually broadened our perspectives. We might disagree, but we always stay at the table and talk and work through it.”

It took years to build the relationships among the police officers, case managers and the neighborhoods where LEAD operates — the Belltown neighborhood and Skyway area.

As Murray begins to look at a comprehensive strategy for downtown, he is outlining three ways the city will be working to become full partners in the LEAD program. First, SPD will have a lieutenant tasked with focusing on LEAD. His office will be aligning with other offices and services to improve engagement with LEAD to make it a more widely available alternative to the traditional justice program. Lastly, a task force headed by Scott Lindsay will explore how to grow LEAD throughout different parts of the city.

"Lead is a good example of how we can all work together," Murray said at the press conference. "Taking this to scale will be very important."

Working together could prove a large challenge for the program as it expands with more organizations, people and officers becoming involved.

“As more players come in, it is almost like starting over,” Speelmon says. “New officers have the same kind of hesitance that the officers who refer to us all the time now had in the beginning.”

Police Capt. Chris Fowler of West Precinct says the program has already started expanding, as bicycle officers that work at night and during the day as well as the neighborhood response teams were trained a few weeks ago.

There will be two more reports before the LEAD Evaluation is complete: Next up — looking at the actual savings from the pilot project. The third report will examine LEAD participants' progress over time.

For Barrickman, her life continues to evolve. She wants to find her way back to Alaska. She originally traveled from Alaska to Seattle to visit for a few days and ended up staying nine years. Right now she is working to get off methadone and finishing up two years at Seattle Central Community College. In July, she is planning on heading back to Alaska to live closer to her two daughters in foster care.

“The lady taking care of them told me that all they know about me is that mommy was in Seattle seeing a special doctor,” Barrickman says. “That was part of my motivation to be sober — I was wondering, how long am I going to make this lady tell this lie to my kids? They will eventually figure it all out.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Cambria Roth

Cambria Roth

Cambria Roth is formerly a digital editor at Crosscut, where she curated and wrote Crosscut’s daily, weekly and election newsletters.