Released by Tessie Castillo, NC Harm Reduction Coalition
This month the Fayetteville Police Department, in partnership with the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, Alliance Behavioral Health, Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities (TASC) and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), is launching a new program to divert low-level drug and sex work (prostitution) offenders to treatment instead of jail.
Currently, Fayetteville faces one of the highest rates of opioid abuse in the nation. Last year alone over 500 people were arrested for drug possession in the city. The cost to arrest and prosecute so many low-level offenders, as well as the drain on department resources and the collateral consequences heaped on people with criminal records, have spurred community leaders to take action.
Under the new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program launched this month, police officers will be able to divert eligible citizens (people with under 4 grams of drugs, no violent record, etc) to treatment providers and social services instead of funneling them through the criminal justice system, where often the cases are thrown out or people serve minimal jail time and wind up back on the streets.
The program is championed by Chief Medlock of the Fayetteville Police Department. “Over the years I have made over my fair share of arrests for drug related charges,” says Medlock. “I was following the law, but in my heart I always knew it wasn’t the best thing to do. At some point in life you turn around and recognize that perhaps we need to be helping folks get out of addiction. My decision to start LEAD came down to recognizing the futility of the way law enforcement has been doing business for decades.”
Billy West, District Attorney for Cumberland County, says, “LEAD allows our office to focus on prosecuting dealers and concentrating our resources where they are best utilized.”
The program is operating thanks to key partnerships with organizations such as Alliance Behavioral Health and Coastal Horizon’s Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities (TASC). Alliance, in partnership with their network of treatment providers, is providing LEAD participants with crisis stabilization services, drug detox, employment support services, short term rental assistance, short term emergency housing, and a range of substance use and mental health services.
Sean Schreiber, Chief Clinical Officer for Alliance, explains that “The LEAD program helps fill a gap within the substance abuse continuum by ensuring that individuals receive case management and coordinated care that address the numerous factors that lead to continued opiate and heroin abuse.”
TASC, who currently provides substance use and mental health services to people on probation or parole, is providing case management services to LEAD participants. Dan Bland, Region Two TASC Director, explains, “It makes sense to provide people with services before they go through the court system. This way is better for the community, the taxpayers and the people who use our services.”
Advocates for the LEAD program hope to break the revolving prison door cycle that plagues the criminal justice system and leads to high taxpayer costs, broken lives and unsafe streets. The program represents a paradigm shift in how drugs and law enforcement interact, with a shift towards a public health approach to drugs as opposed to a criminal one. In fact several departments across North Carolina are now following Fayetteville’s lead and looking into starting their own diversion programs.
“My vision is for police and sheriff deputies to be defenders and protectors of the community instead of just law enforcers,” says Chief Medlock. “We want people who use drugs to start turning to the police for help instead of being afraid of us.”
“It has been a rewarding experience and an honor to work on the LEAD program,” says Donnie Varnell, LEAD Program Director at the NC Harm Reduction Coalition. “It is encouraging to see people from so many different parts of the community come together to look for solutions to the drug problem.”
More information may be found at www.nchrc.org/law-enforcement/law-enforcement-assisted-diversion.