Seattle's renowned Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program may need to think of a new name, as it is now in the process of detangling itself from its law enforcement partners, the Seattle Police Department.
The high-intensity case management program is designed to get people the help they need while keeping them out of jail. It's supposed to work on a diverse referral system; the community can refer individuals to LEAD, and so can law enforcement. REACH case managers, Seattle Police Department officers, the King County Sheriff's Department, the Department of Corrections, and prosecutors all collaborate to help each person in the program. Currently, though, LEAD only operates on referrals from SPD.
On Thursday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold introduced a budget proviso that would withhold the program's funding for 2020 and into the future unless it expands its operations beyond police. Councilmembers Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant, Andrew Lewis, Dan Strauss, and Council President Lorena Gonzalez signed on as co-sponsors.
Even though LEAD works in concert with SPD, the whole point of the program is to reduce people's interactions with law enforcement and to get them out of the criminal justice system through case management and social work.
Herbold's proviso makes LEAD's breakup with SPD official. It will "require the service provider's commitment in writing to accept referrals from community services and non-law enforcement agencies without prior approval from law enforcement personnel," Herbold said yesterday.
That's fine with LEAD and with SPD Chief Carmen Best.
LEAD, which received $6 million from the city for 2020 (despite some hiccups with the contract earlier this year), didn't have the capacity to keep up with all the referrals it was receiving. Case workers were juggling 30 cases each. They shut down their social contact referrals and only started admitting people to the program through SPD referrals.
LEAD co-founder Lisa Daugaard told The Stranger that "police referral to LEAD services was built in to make sure we were intercepting people who would otherwise be subject to standard enforcement, jail and prosecution." Currently, Daugaard said, the police referral channel hasn't yielded significant numbers.
Through May of last year, police referred 168 cases to LEAD, according to Tara Moss, the project director for LEAD in the Public Defenders Association (PDA). As of May of this year, police have only referred 82 cases.
"Referrals have dropped, and they still have to go through the law enforcement approval process," Moss said. "The police gatekeeper role is not viable especially during this time. Starting with COVID—and based on their capacity and their stresses of their staffing through the protests—SPD have really limited capacity to do these referrals."
Yet requests and community concerns haven't stopped. "The need is still out there," Moss said, "but it’s also been growing." Shelters and resource centers have closed. People are in need of services. LEAD is key for public safety but also public health, Moss added.
Daugaard said there is "growing support for de-coupling LEAD services from the requirement of police approval."
Best agrees, according to a letter to the mayor's office first reported by journalist Erica Barnett.
“Currently," Best's letter read, "we do not have the capacity to keep the level of response that we would like toward the LEAD program based on the current environment."
Herbold's amendment, which has all but two council members (hello, Debora Juarez and Alex Pedersen) signed on as co-sponsors, will get tacked onto the council's budget proposal. The first committee vote on that will be next Wednesday. The final vote on the budget will happen in August.
LEAD's funding will hinge on finding a future without SPD as gatekeepers. Law enforcement can still refer people to LEAD, it just won't be the prerequisite for anyone getting the help they need any longer.