Police push treatment over handcuffs in some drug arrests

Posted at 6:22 PM, Feb 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-07 06:20:28-05

A fair amount of the city's power brokers gathered in the small Baltimore Police press room to announce a collaboration on a program they hope flips the script on addiction.

Simply put, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) offers a treatment center over a jail bed.

"Rather than responding with handcuffs and jail time, police officers will be working with skilled clinicians to engage with people who have substance abuse problems and get them connected to treatment and support services they desperately need," said Kathleen Westcoat with Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB).

The help of BHSB, other non-profits, private and public money make LEAD possible. 

People who could be charged with low level drug possession will now have a choice, accept help or possibly get locked up.

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Currently, LEAD is only a pilot program on the west side of downtown. Police will focus on the area around Lexington Market.

More than 120 officers in the central district have already been trained, of those is Lieutenant Steve Olson who lost his own brother to addiction.

“The officers that I've been surrounded with to work in this program care as much as I do and if I couldn't save my own brother, I'd like to save yours. I'd like to save your mother and your father, your brother and your sister. The passion on my end is matched by the officers that I work with and we can't wait to start working," Olson said.

The program started Monday and the city thinks it will be helping 60 people at any one time.

LEAD started in Seattle and city councilman Bill Henry heard about it right after the riots of 2015.

He and so many others from the police commissioner to the state's attorney worked in concert to bring it to Baltimore this year.

"I am often hesitant about this because I like to think we can't police our way out of a lot of the problems that we are in but this is one case where the police can be positively helping to eliminate the real root cause of crime and that is not often we get that opportunity," Henry said.

Giving the opportunity to intervene instead of incarcerate, LEAD defines addiction as an illness, not a crime.

It is a different approach the police commissioner says can make a difference in Baltimore.

"They are suffering from substance abuse and incarceration does little if anything to cure them of that addiction so there has to be a different way to approach folks who are suffering from drug addictions," police commissioner Kevin Davis said.

This program has been in place in Seattle for a few years now and Henry says that city saw a decline in the recidivism rate.

Davis says if his officers see less and less of the people they routinely arrest for low level drug charges, then he'll know it is working here in Baltimore.

This pilot is scheduled to go three years with an eye on eventually expanding it city-wide if it is successful.

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