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Program to focus on treatment rather than jail

A used hypodermic needle was discarded in an alley near Central and San Pedro SE. A new program will allow police to take some suspects to treatment instead of jail. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A new diversion program in which police officers take low-level suspects to treatment instead of jail will soon be rolled out in Southeast Albuquerque.

The police area command for that part of the city will be home to the first Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD.

The idea is this: Instead of filing criminal charges against those they arrest – for a low-level crime like drug possession, shoplifting or prostitution – police can take them to a detox facility where they will meet with a case manager who can coordinate services, such as Medicaid, housing vouchers and substance abuse treatment.

Unlike other diversion efforts in the 2nd Judicial District, such as Drug Court, the LEAD program will send people to services before charges are ever filed. That allows them to avoid an arrest and a criminal record. Many of the judicial district’s specialty courts are used as a term of a plea agreement and the defendant will often get a criminal record as a result of the case.

“You can’t get more upstream than this,” said Sam Howarth, the behavioral health services administrator for Bernalillo County. The program will also allow police to send people for help after a “social contact,” which means that the person wasn’t at risk of being arrested but still wanted help.

Similar programs exist in Santa Fe, Seattle and several places in Colorado.

Albuquerque Police Department Deputy Chief Eric Garcia said city and county officials for several years have been planning a diversion program that officers can initiate. The department has tapped a Problem Response Team in the Southeast Area Command to be the first group of officers who will divert low-level criminals to treatment, he said. The team has about six officers.

“We’ve all seen the revolving door. We’ll arrest someone, and they’ll be back on the streets very soon, and we haven’t solved the problem,” he said. “Hopefully, this can put an end to that cycle.”

Since the program got started nearly a year ago in Colorado, more and more officers are sending people to the LEAD program there instead of jail, said Emily Richardson, the manager of co-responder services for the Colorado Department of Human Services.

“Officers aren’t mandated to make LEAD referrals. It’s their discretion,” she said. “Being able to get them into a program that is going to hopefully make some longer-term changes is really the motivation that I’ve seen so far.”

In Colorado, the Department of Human Services oversees several LEAD programs, which got underway last spring. There are active LEAD programs in Alamosa, Longmont and Pueblo. A program is about to launch in Denver.

Richardson said that about 50 people in the state are in a LEAD program. Denver will open with four case managers who can handle about 80 to 100 participants. Most of the people in the program have substance abuse problems.

In Albuquerque, Garcia said, APD’s Crisis Intervention Unit will help create the curriculum to train officers on the new program.

It’s not exactly clear when the program will get off the ground.

Because many of the people who will end up in the diversion program are homeless or have a mental illness, the police will have to get policies for the program approved by a federal monitor overseeing Albuquerque’s police reform effort, which could take a couple months to be finalized, Garcia said.

Part of the police reform effort called for the department to revamp how officers interact with people with mental illnesses, who were too often at the end of a use-of-force by police, according to a Department of Justice investigation into the department.

Howarth said the county is in the process of hiring the program’s first case manager with the help of a one-time grant. The Bernalillo County Commission approved in November a $250,000 annual budget, which comes from a behavioral health tax, to hire as many as three case managers.

They will work at the Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment Services detox center, or MATS, and will oversee LEAD participants, according to county documents. Howarth estimates each case manager can oversee about 25 participants.

“It’s more humane, because it accepts that substance abuse disorders are brain diseases and it treats them as such. And, secondly, it’s been demonstrated to reduce criminal activity,” County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said. “I see it as a benefit both for the individual who is engaged in the LEAD program … and it also leads to less victimization and lower costs for our community.”

The plan is to first roll out the program in APD’s Southeast Area Command. The program will later expand into the South Valley, which is patrolled by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies, and then possibly Downtown, Howarth said.

Suspects won’t qualify for the program if they’ve had convictions within the past 10 years for crimes such as homicide, vehicular homicide, aggravated arson, aggravated burglary, robbery, kidnapping, sex offenses or a case involving a firearm or deadly weapon.

People found with more than 6 grams of drugs; who are dealing drugs for a profit as opposed to supporting their own habit; minors; and those suspected of promoting prostitution or the exploitation of minors will also be excluded from the program.

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