Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB) and the Baltimore Police Department are launching a pilot program that diverts low-level drug offenders to treatment rather than sending them to jail. (Baltimore Sun video)
Police in Baltimore will now send some people they stop for minor drug and prostitution offenses to treatment programs rather than jail under a three-year pilot program developed in partnership with local nonprofit groups.
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, is based on a treatment and support services model in Seattle and a handful of other cities across the country. It opens in Baltimore after more than a year of planning here.
It is consistent with commitments by Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to find ways to avoid "unnecessary incarceration" of addicts and the mentally ill, as well as with directives in Baltimore's proposed police reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
"All too often in our city and our country we handcuff, charge and incarcerate people who are addicted to drugs," Davis said during a news conference Monday launching the program. "They're suffering from substance abuse, and incarceration does little if anything to cure them of that addiction. So there has to be a different way."
Under the program, police officers who detain individuals suspected of prostitution or misdemeanor drug possession will be able to call case managers with Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. instead of booking the suspects on criminal charges. The pilot approach will apply to arrests in the western half of downtown. More than 120 officers have received training for the program, Davis said.
The case managers, under oversight by Behavioral Health System Baltimore, will provide services including drug treatment, mental health services and housing aid, officials said.
"The goal of LEAD is really to meet people where they are, and the services are very client-directed," said Daniel Atzmon, the program director at the health system.
Other help could come in the form of clean clothes, a room to stay for a night, or counseling to address "underlying trauma" that is contributing to a person's addiction, Atzmon said.
The program will focus on a portion of the city bound by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west, St. Paul Street on the east, Franklin Street on the north and Pratt Street on the south.
The area includes historic Lexington Market, which police in the past have described as "a well-known open-air drug market" and on Monday said would be a main focus of the program.
Individuals can refuse to participate in the program, in which case they would be processed through the criminal justice system.
T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said the program will operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Officers will prioritize diversion for everyone whose alleged crime fits under the stated criteria, he said, but "there are going to be people who slip through the cracks."
Smith said the coverage area was selected because of "noted concerns" about crime there, but could not provide arrest data. He acknowledged similar offenders now will be treated differently depending on where they are stopped in the city, but said officials hope the program will expand once "its success is documented."
The program is to be paid for with a mix of public and private funding. Atzmon and Smith said the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention provided $100,000; the Abell Foundation provided $100,000; the Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation gave $75,000; and the Open Society Institute-Baltimore provided $350,000.
Medicaid, the state-federal health program for low-income people, will cover some services.
Officials expect the program to serve about 60 people at a time.
Diana Morris, director of OSI-Baltimore, said she hopes savings to the state, through reduced incarceration levels, will be more than enough to cover expansion of the program into new neighborhoods.
Focusing resources on "violent repeat offenders" has been a constant refrain of Davis and Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby. The city has averaged more than a homicide a day this year, and more than 300 homicides in each of the past two years.
Baltimore's proposed consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department is pending in court. It must be approved by a federal judge if it is to become binding, but that approval is expected.
The agreement requires the Police Department to revisit how it interacts with individuals with behavioral health issues or who are in "crisis," including by establishing "a preference for the least police-involved response possible consistent with public safety."
Hundreds of people die from heroin overdoses in Baltimore each year. Tens of thousands of people in the city are believed to have opioid abuse disorders. Thousands are locked up for low-level drug offenses.
The program comes as state officials have sought to reduce opioid abuse, which has surged in recent years. Even as efforts to reduce incarceration of low-level offenders and addicts have increased, so have efforts to increase penalties for high-level offenders and dealers.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the Public Safety Committee, said the program was "a long day coming."
"For far too long in this city, at least the 32 years that I've been alive, we've treated the illness of addiction as a crime, and that was wrong for us to do," Scott said. "A byproduct of that is we have ruined families, taken mothers and fathers away from their sons, taken children away from their parents, and caused them pain across neighborhoods throughout the city of Baltimore."
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Lt. Steve Olson, who will help supervise the program, said he is passionately committed to its success. Just over 10 months ago, Olson said he discovered his brother was addicted to heroin. That brother has since died, he said.
Having been a cop for 18 years, Olson said he "figured I had the resources at my fingertips" and would be able to get his brother help, but instead found "a lot of the doors that looked open were shut. A lot of the doors that were shut were open and I didn't know it. I couldn't help my own little brother."
Olson now sees his involvement in the LEAD program as a calling.
"If I couldn't save my own brother, I'd like to save yours," he said. "I'd like to save your mother and your father, your brother and your sister."