After 10 long years of being homeless and addicted to crack, Felicha Fields has been sober for 41 days. “I’m free! I love it!” said Fields, a high-energy, 45-year-old, Yakima-born woman. “I feel comfortable. I like it better indoors.”
She gives a lot of credit for her transformation to the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) pilot program that has been supported by a unique coalition: The Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, the King County Prosecutor’s Office, elected officials, the ACLU of Washington, neighborhood groups, the Downtown Seattle Association and the Public Defender Association’s Racial Disparity Project.
LEAD’s goal is extremely ambitious: To replace the war on drugs and its policy of putting people with substance abuse issues in jail.
“The war on drugs has been an absolute failure,” said Kris Nyrop, LEAD program director.
In place of the war on drugs, LEAD wants to take a public-health, harm-reduction approach to drug addiction. The program hopes to get those with substance abuse issues into treatment and housing and out of a life of crime. “We want to make [LEAD] the primary paradigm for dealing with public-health issues downtown,” said Lisa Daugaard, Policy Director for the Racial Disparity Project and one of LEAD’s primary architects.
Now LEAD may face new significant challenges because of Mayor Ed Murray’s political agenda. While Murray’s office is
being coy about its support for the program, the mayor and the new SPD police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, have launched initiatives that may become more attempts to solve problems associated with drug addiction primarily with arrests and jail time.
Fields of glory
Fields is unaffected by city hall’s politics. Last October, Fields was living in a tent at Third and Yesler in Pioneer Square. She was tired of living on the streets, smoking crack and, in her words, “being a criminal.” Her boyfriend, who was addicted when she met him, had been sober for three years and was holding a steady job as a janitor. Her aunt and cousin wanted her to get sober. She had heard about LEAD and decided she wanted to get into the program. One day, she approached SPD Officer Jason Diamond, who is a bicycle patrolman downtown, for help.
Diamond called Christine Illan, a case manager in the Reach Program of Evergreen Treatment Services, who is under contract from LEAD. Diamond and his partner waited with Fields for a couple of hours until a LEAD representative showed up. “I want to commend the officers,” Fields said. “They stayed with me.”
Next, Fields had to get herself into the detox program run by the Recovery Centers of King County (RCKC). Every morning at 8 a.m., she had to call someone from RCKC to see if there was room in the agency’s Medicaid-funded detox program. “It wasn’t easy,” recalled Fields. “Every day it was full.” But after several days she was admitted to detox.
“Crack cocaine is not like heroin,” said Fields. “It’s a psychological addiction. You may jones for it but you are not going to get sick. You’re going to sleep a lot. The desire don’t go away. You have to have a desire to stay clean and sober.”
After three days in detox, Fields completed an intensive 27-day, in-patient, drug-recovery treatment program at RCKC. “I was happy to be there,” she said.
When she’d completed her in-patient treatment, LEAD provided her with “clean-and-sober” housing. “I go to [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings. I love being sober,” said Fields.
Fields and Illan, her LEAD case manager, meet once a week to address any problems related to staying sober. “Christine, she’s wonderful,” said Fields.
Fields has also enrolled in Courage 360, a life-skills and job-training program for women. “It’s really hard, especially when you are coming off the streets,” said Fields. “I wanted to quit, but my teacher wouldn’t let me.”
Fields still has issues to resolve from her old life, including an arrest for possession of crack. Illan went to Fields’ last court date with her. Fields recalled, “Since Christine was there, the judge said, ‘That’s enough supervision.’ [The judges] recognize the [LEAD] program.” Fields’ trial has been continued while she keeps putting together her new life.
In the meantime, Fields stressed the importance of staying away from her old haunts. “No more Pioneer Square; no more Belltown; no more downtown.”
Money, geography and 250 clients
LEAD can get clients from two geographical areas: All of downtown Seattle and the unincorporated neighborhood of Skyway in King County. In downtown, police officers refer clients; in Skyway, King County deputies make the referrals. Out of SPD’s 1,300 officers, only between 70 and 80 are authorized to make referrals, according to LEAD’s Nyrop.
The program is in the final year of four years of private foundation funding. In the fall of 2014, the Seattle City Council added money to expand funding for the program. While Murray did not oppose adding funding to the city budget, he did not include it in his own budget proposal.
Now, LEAD has a total 2015 budget of $1.5 million, half public and half private. Starting next year, it will require more public funding to continue.
The money from the city council allowed the program to expand its capacity for clients. Currently, LEAD has around 250 clients; the program can handle up to 500.
So why is LEAD being underutilized?
Nyrop and Daugaard are extremely diplomatic about the question. They stress their good working relationships with the mayor’s office and SPD. They express gratitude for the ongoing cooperation of city hall.
But still, Nyrop said, “We’re not getting the referrals out of the Seattle Police Department that we would like to see. Once things shake out at the city and the police department, we hope to get more referrals.” (In comparison, LEAD is working well with the King County Sheriff’s Department and plans to increase the number of referrals coming from Skyway.)
Downtown crime and harm reduction
Scott Lindsay is Murray’s special assistant on police reform and public safety. He said, “I view LEAD as a very important tool, but there are some specific operational challenges.”
Lindsay painted a picture of downtown crime and public disorder that was gruesome. A couple of years ago, Lindsay, an attorney, returned to Seattle after 15 years of living and working in Washington, D.C. “There were parts of Seattle where I felt strikingly unsafe,” he said. He claimed downtown crime is up 35 percent. “The complaints by employees, residents and tourists about downtown disorder have increased significantly as well,” he said. He pointed out that downtown crime was highly concentrated around “drugs markets from Third and Pike to Westlake, from Occidental Park to Third and Yesler and in Victor Steinbrueck Park.”
Lindsay said LEAD will ultimately be judged by its effectiveness at curbing crime. “If [LEAD] does not have a real and tangible impact on downtown crime and street disorder, it will lose its political support.”
LEAD, he said, is supposed to fight crime by getting people who are caught in a cycle of substance abuse to stop breaking the law. If they are not getting on a “track to changing,” there needs to be “rapid law-enforcement intervention,” he said. He talked about using “detention” and “charging and holding for a gross misdemeanor,” to motivate people to change. He warned, “Ultimately, it could mean more significant consequences. There are very few people who are receiving felony drug convictions.”
LEAD advocates talked about their mission differently.
There is only one requirement to be in the program: Clients must complete an intake form within 30 days of enrollment. At the intake meeting, clients and their case manager start working on a treatment plan. It can be a plan for minimal action or a complete change of life, like Fields undertook.
LEAD’s Nyrop said, “ There is no such thing as one size fits all. What is specific about this [client] that needs attention? Mental health? Housing? Dentists? Doctors? Chemical treatment? Case managers are brokers [or] gatekeepers for services.
“The goal is to reduce criminal behavior but not necessarily stop drug use. The first six months, there are not necessarily big changes. In some cases it has taken 25 years to get where [the clients] are at. The idea that it is going to take one or two or three or four years to change all that may be completely unrealistic.”
At the same time, Daugaard said, “LEAD is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.” She said LEAD clients are still subject to criminal enforcement, which is something that is often misunderstood about the program. “The community does have certain expectations. You can’t flagrantly blow off all the rules and laws indefinitely.”
While LEAD is being debated and underutilized in Seattle, on Feb. 25, SPD announced a new seven-member police squad to “reduce street disorder,” said West Precinct Seattle Police Captain Chris Fowler (the West Precinct covers all of downtown and more).
“The Neighborhood Response Team, created in December, is focusing on so-called ‘street disorder’ crimes, such as shoplifting, public urination, defecation and drug use,” according to an SPD blog post. The blog post goes on to reference LEAD as one of the tools available to the police when addressing these problems.
In a recent profile in The Seattle Times, Chief O’Toole said, “Well, drug dealing is the easy one. That’s a crime, and the police can address that.”
Neither O’Toole nor mayoral advisor Lindsay sound like they have discarded the war on drugs in favor of the harm-reduction approach favored by LEAD. The next year will show what the mayor and his new chief will actually do day-to-day on the streets.
Fields could serve as a reminder. “When you are out there, getting high, it’s hard to get help,” she said. “LEAD is about helping you get back on your feet.”