Diverted

in Criticals

Photo by Vivek Suri.

Officer Osvaldo Garcia rubbed his eyes and yawned as he slumped into the driver’s seat of his police cruiser. “It’s been a long day,” he sighed. But it was about to get much longer. For four hours, Garcia and I would sit idling in a parking lot in The Hill, a neighborhood just west of downtown New Haven, our only company the intermittent crackle of Garcia’s radio and the whoosh of cars careening down Columbus Avenue.

Garcia is tall with close-cropped black hair, and muscular in his bulletproof vest and police uniform. Despite having joined the police force only six years ago, he affects the world-weariness and resignation of a grizzled veteran. For much of our evening together, Garcia groused about the police force’s long hours, low pay, and byzantine rules and regulations.

Early in his career as an officer, Garcia told me, he made a drug arrest almost every night, but he got tired of picking up so many people for minor infractions. Now, a new initiative from the New Haven city government is trying to reduce the number of arrests for low-level offenses. When Garcia is in the position to make a drug arrest, he has a new option: he can offer the offender a chance to partake in a new city program, called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, that provides a restorative alternative to the criminal justice system.

As the evening wound to a close, we hadn’t seen a single person come through the empty lot. But even if we had, Garcia admitted there really wasn’t much of a chance that I’d get to see the program in action — he and most of his fellow officers rarely think of using it.

In late 2017 New Haven announced the creation of a LEAD pilot. Based on a national model pioneered in cities such as Seattle and Albany, LEAD gives police officers the jurisdiction to divert low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system and into community based harm-reduction programs. The program is entirely discretionary — an officer can choose whether or not to offer LEAD to an offender, and the offender can refuse the offer and opt for arrest if they so wish.

In other cities, the model seems to be working. A 2017 study found that Seattle’s LEAD program reduced recidivism by nearly 60 percent and that LEAD participants were significantly more likely to find housing and employment. Social justice advocates hailed the success of LEAD in Seattle as a paradigm shift in the city’s approach to law enforcement, especially at a time of strained police-community relations. LEAD in New Haven began with similar hopes, but in the past year, a combination of leadership changes, minimal transparency, and a lack of community involvement have jeopardized the program’s success.

LEAD’s roots in New Haven can be traced back to the fall of 2016, when a series of sex-work stings by the NHPD drew the ire of community activists, who called on the city to find a rehabilitative approach to addressing low-level crimes, according to Jane Mills, a leader of the local criminal justice reform group People Against Injustice.

The following spring, city officials signed a Memorandum of Understanding with various state agencies and community groups, promising to involve “community stakeholders and advocates” and “bring their important perspectives and expertise to the process.” After traveling to Seattle to learn more about the LEAD program there, city officials, in the spring of 2017, applied for — and eventually acquired — a $75,000 grant from the Department of Justice. In late November 2017, the pilot officially began in the Downtown, Hill North, and Hill South neighborhoods.

Once the program got underway, however, community leaders like Stacy Spell of Project Longevity, a Connecticut-based law enforcement initiative to reduce gun violence, found that the city was no longer receptive to their input.

“Initially, when LEAD was exploring applying for the grant, Project Longevity was brought in because we are a law enforcement program as well,” Spell said. “But once the program started to take shape, we were never approached again.”

Evan Serio, the director of Programming and Advocacy for the Sex Workers and Allies Network, or SWAN, said, “There was definitely a feeling in SWAN and several other groups that we had maybe been tokenized and brought in for the grant writing, because the city thought having a sex workers-led and focused group on the initial proposal looked really good.”

“They took our help and didn’t give anything back or keep us in the process,” he added.

In its grant application, the city promised to hire a LEAD Coordinator to run the program. The position’s primary responsibilities include outreach to community leaders and people who have experienced incarceration, homelessness, or drug abuse. The application promised that the city would fill the position within two months of the grant award, but by the summer of 2018 — nearly a year later — it had yet to hire anyone. Nor was there a LEAD website or even a whisper about the program on social media.

And that wasn’t the only leadership void derailing the program’s progress. In January 2018, just over a month after the program’s start date, Martha Okafor resigned as the head of the Community Services Administration, a city agency that coordinates initiatives ranging from social services to the arts, and is responsible for LEAD planning efforts. In February, she was replaced by Dr. Dakibu Muley, for whom LEAD became just one of many new responsibilities. Spell, of Project Longevity, the gun violence reduction organization, told me he thought this vacuum in leadership caused the fledgling LEAD program to stall.

Indeed, throughout the early months of the pilot, community leaders’ efforts to glean information about the program’s development were stonewalled at every turn. “We wanted to know how many people were being diverted and for what offenses, how frequently they accept it, and how often people feel like they know what they’re getting into,” said SWAN’s Serio. “[The city’s] initial response was that they couldn’t tell us because of HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal healthcare confidentiality law] but it really felt like a smokescreen. They could very well just say that we don’t know and we’ll get back to you, and that would be okay — I understand that there are only so many hours a day. But it feels like they’re not even attempting to give us information.” In contrast, Albany program managers proactively released a report that included descriptions of LEAD participants with identifying information redacted.

Serio told me that, despite the fact that SWAN does on-the-ground outreach in Fair Haven nearly every day and downtown at least once a week, they have yet to find anyone who is or was a participant in LEAD. To activists, this makes the city’s unresponsiveness even more frustrating.

Last June, a group of five community organizations, including SWAN, requested to meet with LEAD’s Operational Work Group to discuss the program’s lack of community involvement and transparency. Other than Muley, the new head of the Community Services Administration, only one member of the LEAD group came to the meeting. At the meeting, the activists pressed Muley to give them a say in hiring a new program coordinator. But Serio said he and the other community leaders were told they would just “bog the process down.”

Though LEAD in New Haven operates out of a city government office, that’s not the case in most other LEAD cities. In Seattle, the program is run by the nonprofit Seattle Public Defender Association, and in Albany it is managed by the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. Representatives from these organizations expressed skepticism that a LEAD program run by a city government could be effective.

“In general, we recommend that the project is not managed out of a government office, so that community partners don’t feel like the whole enterprise is vulnerable to being folded into an elected official’s political agenda,” said Lisa Daugaard, the head of the Seattle Public Defender Association.

Keith Brown, the Albany LEAD Project Manager, echoed Daugaard’s concerns. Brown said that early LEAD programs like those in Seattle and Albany were “driven by folks who were on the ground, either civil rights groups, community groups, or harm-reduction programs.” As the model spread around the country, however, Brown said LEAD became a buzzword, “one where money was often attached, so it then became a thing that municipalities and police departments decided to do.”

In August, the CSA finally hired Cynthia Watson as the LEAD Project Manager, despite a lack of community input. Prior to joining LEAD, she worked as the Administrative Director of Christian Community Action, a New Haven-based social service organization. I interviewed Watson in a spare conference room in the annex wing of City Hall, where her office is located. In person, she’s affable and blunt. She told me that the program failed to achieve some of its core objectives in its first year. “There was a long lag where there was no communication with the community,” Watson admitted. She added that one of her main tasks as Project Director is to facilitate the formation of a Community Leadership Team made up of representatives from community groups and formerly incarcerated or homeless people. In October, Watson hosted a meeting with community groups that she called a “critical” opportunity for community members to voice their questions and concerns about the program and one of the first steps in the formation of a Community Leadership Team.

But SWAN’s Serio is less optimistic. He criticized the city’s decision to only allow one delegate from the Community Leadership Team, once it is formed, to sit in on LEAD’s Operational Team meetings. In other cities like Albany, Serio said, the Community Leadership Teams formed in a more “organic” way, which forced the city to “cede them power and oversight and meet them halfway.”

Watson has yet to make a website with information about the program’s progress. In contrast, the Katal Center released a comprehensive report after the Albany program’s first year with detailed information including the program’s funding, stakeholders, and operational successes.

The problems plaguing LEAD in New Haven go beyond institutional and organizational errors. LEAD is primarily a law enforcement program, so it only works if the police officers charged with implementing the model buy into it.

During our ride-along, I asked Officer Garcia if he actively tries to divert people to LEAD. “The idea of [LEAD] is really good,” he said. “It’s just difficult with the amount of workload we have to follow up on.” Garcia added that he and his fellow officers seldom discuss the program, and that Hill district manager Lieutenant Jason Minardi had only brought up the program in front of him “once or twice.” Garcia admitted he’d never even considered offering someone LEAD diversion.

When asked to comment on his role in LEAD, Minardi told me that he was on vacation and no longer doing interviews about the program. In response to a similar request, Sergeant Sean Maher, the Downtown District Manager, wrote that since he had only recently been assigned to Downtown, he wasn’t able to speak about his role in the program.

In other cities, LEAD administrators adopted proactive measures for encouraging police officers to make use of the program. In Albany, for example, LEAD administrators identified a core group of officers who supported the program’s approach to law enforcement and encouraged them to actively “spread the buy-in” across the department, Brown explained. Albany’s program also just recently started sending LEAD engagement specialists — the program’s social workers — on ride-alongs with the police. In Seattle, the city held regular focus groups with officers in LEAD neighborhoods.

From the beginning, LEAD in New Haven lacked the structure of feedback and accountability that has been integral to the model’s success in other cities. Six months from now, the original LEAD grant application money will run out. At that point, the city may attempt to extend the program to more neighborhoods or even across the entire city. But a year into the pilot, basic questions about its efficacy don’t seem to have been answered.

Toward the end of my ride-along with Officer Garcia, he asked me to reach into his glove compartment and pull out a pile of paperwork. As I pulled out the pile, I saw, smushed into the back of the compartment, a small stack of LEAD pamphlets and xeroxed articles about the program from the Register and Independent.

“Funny,” he said, and then chuckled. “I don’t even know how those got there.”

Jack McCordick is a sophomore in Branford College.

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