Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that it was Sgt. Kevin McKenna present at the meeting. It has since been updated to name Sgt. Kevin Slattery. 

ITHACA, N.Y. – Harm reduction has been one of Ithaca’s recent buzzwords on the topic of addiction treatment, and the Ithaca Police Department is making moves to integrate the concept into their work, too.

In a Community Police Board meeting at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, Officer Mary Orsaio and Sgt. Kevin Slattery presented IPD’s new harm reduction program proposal – the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.

Orsaio explained that LEAD was developed as a harm reduction based program aimed to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system.

Traditionally, when people think of police officers, they often don’t make a tie into social work or other city resources,” Orsaio said. “What makes this program so unique is that city resources are going to come together and start talking.”

The program was designed as a way for police to determine the ideal way to treat low-level offenders dealing with addiction, Orsaio said. Hypothetically, she explained, if she were to arrest someone for a misdemeanor who was also struggling with addiction, as the arresting officer she would be able to determine whether or not to pursue charges or enroll them into the program. Multiple agencies and departments within the city would then collaborate on a case-by-case basis.

“As an officer, I have faced the same people over and over again for low-level offenses, and what I’ve found is that they’re stuck in the system,” Orsaio said. “There has to be something else I can be helping (them) with besides putting cuffs on (them) and setting a court date.” 

A person would have to be compliant, not a danger to the community with a non-violent history to be considered for enrollment in the LEAD program, officers said. It would be entirely voluntary, meaning the client could opt out if they would rather face the charges.

Orsaio said that unlike drug court, LEAD would not be an abstinence based program, but aimed to focus more on moving at a pace the client could keep up with.

What we’re hoping for is to make an improvement of that client’s status,” Slattery said. “With it being non-abstinence based, we’re setting a standard that is achievable.”

If a client were to opt for enrollment in the LEAD program, police said they would then meet with a LEAD intake officer to discuss further resources available to them. Members from different agencies within the city – such as the District Attorney’s office, police and various outreach workers – will be assigned to the case to determine the best treatment for the client.

After the program is up and running, Orsaio said IPD aimed to have one LEAD intake officer available on every shift. This officer would be in charge of filing the client’s paperwork and assigning a case manager, who would be in constant contact with police.

However, an agency who will provide case managers is the one part of LEAD which remains in discussion.

“Other cities have contracted with case managers who work hand in hand with the police department,” Orsaio said. “We have had very early communications with the Southern Tier Aids Program, who will possibly supply us with case managers.”

LEAD is not only an innovative way to tackle addiction, but it will also ease the burden on police and taxpayers as well, Slattery said. Both officers said the time and resources that go into processing a low-level criminal offender – which often costs several thousand dollars in processing per case – will be significantly reduced under LEAD’s implementation.

Small drug offenses will tie me up for awhile between processing, fingerprinting and filing their criminal history,” Orsaio said. “That can sometimes take up to two officers. With small violations, if we can enroll them onto LEAD, it’ll be quicker and get officers back on the road faster to do proactive work.”

Seattle, Santa Fe, Albany and Baltimore are among cities around the U.S. which have already begun LEAD police programs. In a recent visit to Seattle, Orsaio said she learned that since its start date in 2011, offenders enrolled in Seattle’s LEAD program were 58 percent less likely to be re-arrested.

If you have five people in the program and it only works for one of them, it’s still a success,” she said. “It’s one less person out of the revolving door.” 

While the LEAD program is awaiting an official start date, both Orsaio and Slattery said the infrastructure is all set up with IPD. Now, they are waiting for responses from other agencies in the city to get on board as well.

Shirley Kane, Chair of the Community Police Board, said to officers that her role was the cheerleader.

I’m so encouraged that we’re going to be offering something like this,” she said. “I’m pretty certain that any officer will feel hopeful about this work.”

Maybe if we get to the root of the problem we can eliminate it.” Orsaio said. “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem.” 

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.