Chief Barber, right

ITHACA, N.Y. — There’s a small group of people in Ithaca who local police officers are forced to deal with on an “almost daily” basis, says Police Chief John Barber.

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These “frequent-fliers” — about a dozen individuals — follow a consistent pattern: They commit low level offenses connected to substance abuse, have to be hospitalized, are released, and soon commit similar crimes.

All of it happens on the public dime. From the ambulance transportation costs, to healthcare for the uninsured patient, to police officers’ time — cycling that person repeatedly through this same process comes at significant taxpayer expense, and with little clear benefit to what is likely a drug addict or an alcoholic.

“The system is bogged down with these low-level offenders,” Barber says in an interview last week. “We want to try a better way.”

Chief John Barber, right

What is that better way? Earlier this summer, Barber traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn about the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program — a model implemented in Seattle, Washington, that has drawn the interest of President Barack Obama’s White House.

As previously reported by the Ithaca Voice, Mayor Svante Myrick is advocating bringing the Seattle “LEAD” model to Ithaca. It’s expected to feature prominently in the findings of Myrick’s municipal drug task force, which the mayor formed to find a new approach to fighting local drug abuse.

See related: The Seattle model Ithaca may use to shatter drug-jail cycle

The basic idea behind LEAD is that rather than automatically transferring low-level offenders to jail, as is currently the case, police would have the option of instead bringing the offenders to mental health counselors and other social service providers first.

Barber stresses the program will take both money and time to build and implement. But Barber says he’s excited about an idea that he thinks could have a transformative impact on the lives of some of the city’s most disadvantaged citizens.

“It’s a collective effort,” Barber says of LEAD, “to try something different.”

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What is the LEAD model?

In May, I interviewed two local officials — Lillian Fan, of the Southern Tier Aids Program’s Syringe Exchange; and Travis Brooks, program administrator at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center — about what they saw firsthand in a trip to Seattle.

Participants in LEAD can avoid criminal charges and an arrest record as long as they fulfill their commitments under the program, which places them in services for drug treatment, stable housing and job training.

“Their recidivism rates just dropped, incredibly so,” Fan said of LEAD. “It shows that people want help; they want these services — you have to give them an avenue to get them.”

How the program would be implemented in Ithaca isn’t exactly clear. According to The Seattle Times, the LEAD model there is only available for people found carrying less than 3 grams of drugs, have no felony convictions for violent or other select crimes, and aren’t involved in prostitution or the exploitation of minors.

Barber also emphasized that the program would not apply to violent offenders in Ithaca.

“If you’ve committed a violent crime, you’re too far gone,” Barber says. “You wouldn’t be referred for this.”

Researchers at the University of Washington gave the project added support; one study found recidivism rates among the chronically homeless fell by close to 60 percent with the new program.

The program has gained momentum around the country — with stories in The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post praising it. Now, it’s beginning to spread outside of Seattle; Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Albany, New York, are adopting forms of Seattle’s basic approach.

This building buzz spurred The White House conference, which Barber attended on July 1 and July 2.

“There are a lot of people who are interested,” Barber says, noting that representatives of 30 states attended the conference.

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Barber says he acknowledges that LEAD may sound like a step too far away from police officers’ traditional roles: After all, aren’t police supposed to simply arrest suspects and execute the law?

“I think there will be skepticism,” Barber says. “I’m not sure how much of my staff is familiar with the Seattle model at this point … and some people simply don’t like change.”

But Barber said that the program is not absolving any suspects, but merely suspending the charges to allow individuals a chance to change their lives.

“The charges don’t go away,” Barber said. “If you don’t comply with the program that’s been designed specifically for you … then those charges can be levied, and you’ll be back to square one.”

Barber says a turning point for him came when he saw a video at the White House conference in which a police officer in Seattle talked about overcoming skepticism toward the program.

Barber says that he can think back over his career of suspects in Ithaca — past and present — who could have benefited from this new system.

“Sometimes our hands are tied with the way the current system operates,” he says. “It’s our job to enforce a law if we need to make an arrest; the person needs to go into the system. This is an approach that is different than the traditional way of doing law enforcement.”

LEAD won’t fix every problem, Barber says. But if it has helped in Seattle, why not see if could help here?

“I’m open to thinking outside the box,” he says. “This won’t work for every person we encounter … but if we can turn the lives of just a handful of people around, and reduce the calls for service and the strain on the taxpayer, then I believe it’s worth exploring.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.