ITHACA, N.Y. — If there is one thing to say about the LEAD program in Ithaca after Tuesday night’s community meeting, it’s that without community support, it will surely fail. That’s why the groups looking to launch it need Ithacans to commit to not just saying they support LEAD but working to support LEAD.

LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is a new program being developed that will offer people an alternative to going to jail, instead working with a case manager to get services that could include housing, medical care, food, and self-harm reduction or rehabilitation services.

So far, a lot of local organizations and community members have worked to become oriented with LEAD programs that have already been launched in other cities, specifically Albany and Seattle. But the models implemented in those cities can’t just be transplanted into Ithaca. The framework of Ithaca’s LEAD program will be made by Ithacans.

One of the people leading a facet of LEAD is Ithaca Police Department Sgt. Kevin Slattery, a native Ithacan.

He’s been involved in getting officers trained to work in LEAD since it was first proposed in Ithaca back in early 2016. Some of the  training police officers

“There are a lot of inherent things about Ithaca that makes it unique that are going to be able to enhance our LEAD program,” Slattery said, which is why the program needs input from many different people and local agencies. “Lead is a very progressive thing.”

He said that officers are among the first line of defense in the opioid epidemic and he wasn’t referring to drug arrests. Since 2014, all IPD officers carry and are trained to use Narcan, an over-the-counter drug that instantly blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose.

He said that in that when police respond to an overdose, they’re often the first at the scene by about a minute. In that minute or so, he said officers are able to provide people with Narcan, which works instantly.

“In that minute we have to be able to make that connection (with people),” he said.

Often times, he said a person who has just overdosed asks police for help because they know they can overdose and die every time they use drugs.

“My only response right now is, ‘I can get you to the hospital, and I’ll be there next time,’” Slattery said. “And the reality of it is, officers are begging for another tool they can utilize in those situations.”

Relate: ‘It’s a no-brainer:’ Ithaca police arming all officers with heroin overdose reverser 

About two dozen people were trained on how to use Narcan following a presentation on International Overdose Awareness Day Aug. 31. Photo by Jolene Almendarez/ The Ithaca Voice

At least that’s the plan IPD is in the processor of developing.

Ithacan Gibrian Hagood said the only way officers and the community can successfully work together on LEAD is to continue building a bridge between officers and the community, including training police on how to work interpersonally with people.

“Right now it seems to be us and them, not everybody…,” he said. But police approaching people with respect and dignity needs to be addressed.

Activist Phoebe Brown agreed saying, “We need to have more events around that for sure, trust building. I think there has been some of that but we could always use more.”

Slattery said after the meeting that he would like there to be an opportunity for LEAD officers to meet with community members to exchange ideas about what their role in the program should be.

There are currently four officers who are planned to act as “resident experts” on LEAD who will likely train other officers about best LEAD practices.

Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles was among several elected officials who attended the meeting.

She said that one of the major issues being faced in getting LEAD off the ground is getting different governmental agencies out of there silos and communicating with each other.

“One difficulty that has to be overcome is that there are different governmental bodies that have to start speaking to each other,” she said.

In other cities that have implemented LEAD programs, there have been three committees that have helped bring people together: governance, operational and community leadership.

The governance committee, Kelles said, brings together representatives from different agencies to talk about what could be offered to people and helps eliminate a doubling up of services.

But it would be up to Ithacans and local agencies to decide if that would work best in the city.

One facet of LEAD that is ready to take off, though, is the Community LEADership Board.

Hagood helped lead the conversation Tuesday night and is also among a group of people who will be collecting contact information for members of the public interested in joining the the board.

The board is generally meant to bring community members together to discuss local needs and possibly offer input to the long list of organizations working to get LEAD off the ground.

Hagood helped lead the conversation Tuesday night and is also among a group of people who will be collecting contact information for members of the public interested in joining the the board. During the conversation, one person asked Hagood for more information about the board —the time commitment needed, the qualifications being sought, etc.

Those details, he said, can’t be decided without a group consensus. He instead encourage anyone interested in joining the board to submit a nomination to participate.

Nominations can be submitted here. 

Featured image: A community meeting about LEAD happened Tuesday night at the Southside Community Center. Attendees voted using round stickers about what topics should take priority during the hour-and-a-half long meeting. Photo by Jolene Almendarez/The Ithaca Voice

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.