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Bel Air Police’s diversion program will let some low-level drug offenders avoid jail, get treatment instead

Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore, shown in this 2016 file photo, said his views have changed on how to tackle the opioid crisis and the town's police department will begin a new initiative, partnering with Harford's state's attorney and Family And Children's Services, to address underlying issues facing low-level criminals as opposed to jail time.
Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore, shown in this 2016 file photo, said his views have changed on how to tackle the opioid crisis and the town's police department will begin a new initiative, partnering with Harford's state's attorney and Family And Children's Services, to address underlying issues facing low-level criminals as opposed to jail time. (MATT BUTTON AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore used to think the best way to hold accountable people who broke the law was to arrest them and put them in jail.

His view has changed in the last few years as the opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions, and through a new partnership with the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office and Family and Children’s Services, Moore is hoping they can address the underlying issues of some of the town’s low-level criminals.

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“It’s a new style of policing that gives a little more latitude, discretion, to the law enforcement officer on the street,” Moore said.

Through the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program — or LEAD — low-level offenders can avoid jail and instead receive a wide range of support services through a trauma-informed, intensive case management program.

State’s Attorney Al Peisinger, who is familiar with the LEAD program, approached the Town of Bel Air and Family and Children’s Services about a pilot program in Harford County, Deputy State’s Attorney Gavin Patashnick said.

“The opioid crisis has gripped this state and nation, particularly our county,” Patashnick said. “This is the ability for the police, at the onset of an encounter with an individual who is suffering from a substance abuse issue, to really provide substantive change at that level.”

It’s a new way of thinking and operating, and it’s been a long time coming, Jennifer Redding, deputy chief of behavioral health services for Family and Children’s Services, said.

“The status quo hasn’t been working. That’s what’s gotten us here,” Redding said. “This new program is really using all of our brain power. It’s behavioral health, law enforcement, the state’s attorney, everyone in the treatment world so we can help folks resolve the bigger issue, which will make our community safer, make our communities healthier.”

Behavioral health issues used to be explained away easily, a lot of it was subjective, she said. But the opioid crisis has made those issues harder to ignore, to the point it’s reached a public health crisis.

“It’s affecting everyone in the community, all of us. We all know someone succumbing to addiction,” Redding said. “We’ve got to do something different or where are we going to end?"

Many of the low-level offenders have some type of trauma in their background that has led to their inability to conform to societal demands, and it’s led them to a path of addiction, Moore said.

“Trauma-informed policing simply recognizes this, leverages behavioral health services, prosecutors, others in the community. Everybody gets together and help them try to return to being productive citizens,” Moore said.

Rather then being charged criminally, the offenders — at the discretion of the officers — will be offered the chance to go through the LEAD program. Instead of the normal criminal justice cycle of booking, detention, prosecution, conviction and potential jail time, people in the program will get support services to help address their situations. That could include help with housing, food and basic life functions in addition to behavioral health therapy. And if they’re open to substance abuse treatment, they can be directed there, Redding said.

They don’t necessarily have to have substance abuse problems, but often the two go hand in hand, Moore said.

LEADS helps combat the opioid crisis rather than just treating it, Patashnick said.

“If we can do it in a rapid manner, it has a lot more effect than if we wait for the arrest, trial, postponements. It’s meaningful intervention at the point of crisis when someone needs it the most,” Patashnick said.

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Incarceration may still be necessary in some instances, he said, but in cases of non-violent misdemeanors, for a person in need of substantive intervention, “this really makes sense and is a good program.”

The State’s Attorney’s Office couldn’t quantify how much time and money it spends prosecuting low-level crimes, but Patashnick said they would ultimately be reduced by implementing this program.

“If somebody doesn’t go through the normal course of being prosecuted, we don’t have a case. The fewer cases on our docket, it leaves us more room to do other things, which is good,” he said.

Any program that reduces the caseload for a prosecutor is positive, he said, not just for the office, but the community in general.

“Because it means you have less crime for the state of focus on. Less crime in a community is better for everybody,” Patashnick said. “I hate to say the goal is to put ourselves out of business, but that is our goal.”

Not everyone arrested will be eligible for the program, Moore said. Violent offenders or people with extensive criminal histories will be excluded.

“Part of our mission, when we’re given our badge, is to try to resolve things many times at the lowest level possible in the community. That’s where discretion comes in," Moore said.

Officers in Bel Air have a close relationship with the community, he said. They know many offenders on a first-name basis, know their histories and in same cases, grew up with them.

“It’s their discretion when to implement the program,” Moore said. “It will be based on observations officers make up front, the individual’s background, interviews. If they meet the parameters and the officers feels they will benefit, the program will be offered.”

A viable candidate could be a 32-year-old man with a family, who’s suffering financial issues and gets caught stealing food to feed his family, for example.

“This type of program is perfect for a person like that," Moore said. “Obviously they’ve got other things making them go out and commit that crime.”

Bel Air Police implemented a few years ago theDrug Abatement Response Team (DART), a collaboration between the police department and other behavioral health organizations and experts such as Family and Children Services, the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy, Addiction Connections Resources and others, to develop a recovery solution.

It included peer recovery specialists, many of whom are recovering from addiction themselves, to motivate overdose survivors and their families to engage in treatment soon after their overdose, typically within 48 hours.

DART has been successful in the town, Moore said. Three overdoses, including one fatal, have been reported in Bel Air town limits so far this year, down from 20 (nine fatal) in 2018 and 33 (five fatal) in 2017.

The LEAD program, which is planned to be implemented by the end of the year, will broaden the net of people who can be served, Redding said.

Some of the parameters of the program are still being worked out, Moore said, including how its success will be measured and monitored.

“If a person participates, if they become productive people and don’t commit any more crimes, they don’t go back to doing the bad things that led to the alleged crime, that’s what I consider success,” Moore said.

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While offering the program is at the discretion of the officers, Moore said he will monitor to whom it is and isn’t offered.

“There may be factors that aren’t tangible, but I would definitely question those that aren’t referred,” Moore said. “It’s about accountability at my level and my deputy chief.”

If it’s successful, it can be expanded to other jurisdictions in Harford, he said.

“It’s a collaboration that brings us these results, that’s how I see it," Moore said. “At first I was a skeptic, but there’s hope. I see that people are recovering and are returning to being productive people. It’s not only saving their own lives, they’re saving their families’ lives. It’s not as black and white anymore, there’s a gray area.”

Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, however, said he’s “not a big fan” of the program, based on the presentations he’s seen on it.

“It’s still a violation of the law,” Gahler said.

The Sheriff’s Office is seeing success with its Substance & Behavioral Health Unit at the Harford County Detention Center, a 12-week program that offers a clinical approach to recovery.

Inmates in the program meet as a group daily and with a speaker from Alcoholics Anonymous nightly to examine their triggers to use substances and work on coping skills. They also get help making the transition from incarceration to release and how to function in society.

Gahler said he as not seen a program in which people avoid criminal penalties in exchange for treatment “that has not come at a cost."

Baltimore City LEAD

Baltimore City implemented the LEAD program in February 2017 as a partnership among Behavioral Health System Baltimore, the local behavioral health authority that oversees behavioral health services; the Baltimore Police Department; and the State’s Attorney’s office.

“Overall, the program has been going well for us in Baltimore City,” Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communication for Behavioral Health System Baltimore.

LEAD is one of hundreds of programs her organizations monitors and oversees implementation of, she said.

Still in pilot form, LEAD is implemented in the central district of the city. To expand the program would require more grants and funds, Breidenstine said.

Under their diversion program, people facing charges of prostitution, drug possession or drug dealing and have a substance abuse disorder are given the option of participating in LEAD rather than being arrested, she said.

If they choose not to participate, they are arrested.

If they do participate, the police officer takes them to the district office, where they meet with a case manager to be connected to the services they need, whether it be mental health treatment, housing, getting identification or any combination of those and other services, Breidenstine said.

“They have a lot of needs, especially homeless [people],” she said.

Of the 109 people have been referred to the program and enrolled in services since it was established more than two years ago, just three have been re-arrested, an indication of the program’s success, Breidenstine said.

“Preliminarily, we are seeing good results,” she said. “People are getting connected to treatment and are staying connected. We’re not seeing many people be re-arrested.”

The program doesn’t have a definition of success, “because everybody defines success differently,” she said, and LEAD is considered a harm reduction program. It’s a non-judgmental approach to meet people where they are and accepts people change on a continuum.

For some with substance abuse problems, success may be using heroin in a safer way for one person or using drugs and/or alcohol less.

“It’s not necessarily abstinence, there’s a safer way to protect your health," Breidenstine said. “To us, seeing a positive outcome is not being re-arrested and not in emergency room.”

Breidenstine did not have specific data on emergency services use.

“We’re looking at that as a positive outcome,” Breidenstine said. “Most people through the program have had some successes.”

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