At 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, the City Council, its central staff and steadfast housing and homelessness advocates sat in City Hall trying to piece together a budget for the coming year. An attempt to peg popular programs to a controversial tax on large businesses had exploded the previous day, forcing the electeds to sew together funding streams on the fly to preserve them.
At that same moment across town in the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct, participants in one of those programs got to work. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) participants hashed out the needs of clients in the criminal justice system while politicians made decisions about the program’s future.
LEAD is Seattle’s answer to the criminal justice system’s catch-release-reoffend cycle. It asks, “What next?”
Whatever the attitude of the current U.S. attorney general, decades of evidence has demonstrated that persistent, low-level crime cannot be solved by simply throwing people in jail.
LEAD, a project of the Public Defenders Association, is at its heart a harm-reduction program that diverts sex workers and low-level offenders who use or deal drugs to social services.
It does so by taking a sledgehammer to the siloes that traditionally separate law enforcement, service providers, prosecutors and community representatives to get everyone literally around a table to figure out where clients are and what they need.
Unlike many services that directly touch drug users and other low-level offenders, LEAD enjoys support from the advocacy community and neighborhood groups that feel endangered by visibly poor people and the drug use and property crimes that they attribute to them.
Now neighborhoods that have not so far been part of the LEAD program, notably those with large communities of color, are asking for the same diversion programs that the downtown core, Central District and Magnolia have enjoyed.
How much LEAD can expand was dependent on the Seattle City Council salvaging an up-in-the-air budget and securing the funding.
A seat at the table
As the Council contemplated cutting the executive budget by almost a fifth, the LEAD participants talked shop.
At least two dozen people gathered around a rectangular arrangement of tables in the West Precinct’s community room.
Some had already put in a full day’s work, reporting for duty at 5 a.m.
They were social workers, police officers, officials from the department of corrections, community advocates and outreach coordinators from the downtown Metropolitan Improvement District.
They came to highlight new problem areas, lift up new faces in their respective communities — largely people from farther north, pushed out by sweeps, they concluded — and then talk about their clients.
One case manager had lost touch with one of his clients, a man who just recently got into housing.
“[He’s] really struggling with his mental health. If you see him, direct him my way?” the case manager asked of the five officers in the room. “He suffers from a lot of shame and guilt, that’s why he’s not coming to see me. Getting adjusted to living inside is more challenging to him than he thought it would be.”
Devin Majkut, a LEAD social worker described a woman, now 47, who was sold to a pimp by her mother when she was just 13. Then she became homeless and took a long road back, including a two-month stay at Swedish Medical Center.
Upon release, she moved into stable housing for the first time in decades.
“She was so excited to show me her door,” Majkut said.
LEAD’s approach to such difficult cases requires concentrating an intense amount of resources on its clients, and allowing coordination and discretion on the part of law enforcement and court officials to ensure that clients’ contacts with the enforcement systems do not undercut the work done by case managers and social workers.
The tag team effort looked seamless during the LEAD meeting Nov. 15, but it’s taken time to build up to that point, said Public Defender Association Director Lisa Daugaard.
Initially, the groups in the coalition were uneasy bedfellows, suspicious of each other’s intentions.
When the effort kicked off, the group met at an office in downtown Seattle with doors that were only open for a 10-minute window to prevent people from wandering in.
One SPD sergeant got locked out for two meetings, unaware of the automatic locks on the doors. He thought that the group was specifically trying to exclude him, Daugaard said.
“The uptake period is two years for people to migrate from extreme resistance and skepticism to genuine enjoyment,” Daugaard said. “What’s interesting about paramilitary structure of law enforcement was that they participated anyway, and that was an asset.”
Now, the team trades stories and requests in congenial tones, strategizing how best to reach and maintain contact with clients.
“We’ve had our trials and tribulations. This idea is organic and has remained organic. It’s been angry and organic, it’s been synergistic and organic,” said Leslie Mills, field operation supervisor for the community response unit of the Department of Corrections. “We had to fix ourselves before we could work as a group. We found out we were just pissed off at each other.
“Once we figured out what our own issues were and put those on the table and got really honest,” Mills said.
LEAD is ready to expand, with a budget proposal before the Seattle City Council to bring the service to Seattle’s north end.
The first budget-balancing package included $1 million that would cover eight case managers, two outreach coordinators, a supervisor at reach, client space, client direct services resources and a nurse for the north end.
It would have been funded by an Employee Hours Tax expected to raise $25 million per year by imposing an annual $125 levy on each employee of a business with gross annual receipts of $10 million or more, or approximately 1.6 percent of businesses with a Seattle business license.
The tax was controversial, and it was not clear that it enjoyed a majority of Council support; several councilmembers expressed concern that it had been advanced with too little consultation with business interests who would ultimately bear the burden of the tax.
Budget Chair Lisa Herbold attached the fate of programs advocated for by councilmembers to the revenue of a tax that had not yet passed.
But the Council shut it down on a 6-to-3 vote, forcing a scramble to save a number of popular appropriations, including the money for LEAD.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien, one of the proponents of the head tax, stepped in, moving $750,000 he had planned to benefit people living in their vehicles to LEAD with a proviso that LEAD also include parking infractions and other traffic violations in its eligibility criteria.
That 25 percent cut will have an impact on LEAD’s northern expansion, Daugaard said.
LEAD will not try to cover the same number of clients with $750,000 as they would with $1 million. The success of the program relies in part on keeping caseloads for social workers and case managers low — an average of 25 clients per person where other organizations average more than twice that.
Case managers have to be able to drop everything to report to the field and help a client in crisis.
When describing her job, Majkut said that she spends perhaps 30 minutes a day at her desk, and the rest meeting with clients, “walking side by side” with them as they pursue options.
Expansion takes a great deal of work and planning, Daugaard said.
“We don’t just pop into a new neighborhood overnight,” she said.
Neighborhoods to the north and south, however, are lobbying for LEAD to come to a street corner near them.
The Highland Park Action Committee (HPAC), which represents Highland Park and Riverview, wrote a lengthy missive to the Council advocating for resources to fund the LEAD expansion. The area has, on average, a lower median income than Seattle, more people of color, more people for whom English is a second language and hosts three homeless encampments, wrote Gunner Scott and Michelle Witzki, co-chairs of the committee.
HPAC has been asking for LEAD for three years, said Tara Moss, Seattle-King County project director for LEAD.
“The strategy is to make it available to all neighborhoods and neighborhoods with economic and racial diversity,” Moss said. “That is a really high priority.”
While Seattle works to bring it to other neighborhoods, LEAD is helping to export the program to other cities.
At the Nov. 15 LEAD meeting, a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department captain expressed his realization that law enforcement was contributing to the problem, continuing the catch-release-reoffend cycle. It wouldn’t change until law enforcement stepped out of its comfort zone, Captain William Scott said.
“This model is the model that the Las Vegas Metro Police Department is definitely going to follow,” he said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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