City Set To Unveil Drug Diversion Program To Clean Up Belltown

After decades of catch-and-release drug arrests, high-profile incidents of violence, and mounting neighbor complaints, an unlikely coalition of local law enforcement agencies, attorneys, and social service groups are set to unveil a relatively large-scale drug diversion program designed to finally put a dent in Belltown’s open-air drug markets.

Beginning October 1st, small-time drug dealers and drug users arrested with less than three grams of crack, heroin, meth or drug paraphernalia in Belltown by members of SPD’s West Precinct Anti-Crime Team and bike patrol officers will be given the option to go to diversion or go to jail as part of the Law Enforcement Assistance Diversion (LEAD) pilot program.

Several law enforcement sources and people familiar with LEAD provided details about the program, but declined to talk on the record.

According to sources, arrestees who volunteer for the program will, when space is available, immediately be taken to a Belltown office run by Evergreen Treatment Services where a caseworker can then set addicts up with housing, social security benefits, job training, or on-the-spot treatment to help stabilize their lives and get them off the streets.

According to one senior law enforcement official, the program will only target drug users and dealers selling to support their own habits.  “Hardcore dealers” selling drugs for profit rather than supporting their own addictions, the official says, would not be eligible for the program.

SPD has assigned the West Precinct Anti-Crime Team and bike patrol squads to the program because of the tight-knit nature of the two small units.

Drug users with prior violent crime convictions will not be immediately admitted to the program either. However, front-line officers and program coordinators will hold meetings every two weeks, where they could decide to refer a previously violent offender to the program.

The LEAD program—the result of a partnership between King County Prosecutor Dan Satterburg, Mayor Mike McGinn, City Attorney Pete Holmes, the Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff’s office, The Defender Association public defense firm, and the ACLU—comes on the heels of Seattle’s dubiously successful Drug Market Initiative program,  which targeted trouble spots in Columbia City and the Central District.

It appears the city  abandoned the DMI program after one-third of the participants in the Central District DMI participants dropped out, while the South Seattle version of DMI only targeted a small handful of drug users and dealers.

Police never considered using the DMI program in Belltown because of the amount of resources needed—hundreds of hours of surveillance by officers—for such a small return, and the fact that DMI relies heavily on drug users having direct ties to the community through long-time relationships or family members. Belltown’s drug users and low-level dealers apparently don’t have enough ties to the neighborhood.

The other big difference between DMI and LEAD is that LEAD is designed with the understanding that long-time addicts may have a relapse or be arrested for drug possession while in treatment. If that happens, they could face charges, but would not be booted from the LEAD program. In DMI, any slip up by a program participant led to heavy-handed prosecution.

The LEAD program in Belltown is designed to serve about 100 people a year. King County is also testing a similar, smaller version of LEAD in Skyway.

After the first two years of LEAD, authorities will take a look at the results, tracking—among other things—recidivism rates for program participants. LEAD, which costs about $1 million a year, already has enough funding to run for the next four years.

“In large part, what we do now doesn’t do anything to break their cycle of drug use,” said one high-level law enforcement  source involved in developing the program. “The current approach hasn’t been successful. We’re doing this to improve public safety for the neighborhood. Make people feel like it’s safer, and to actually make it safer.”

Photo by Crashworks via Flickr.