A New Haven social program designed to reduce arrests for people with substance-use disorders and mental illnesses came under fire at a teach-in hosted by New Haven and Yale community members last Wednesday night.

Under the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which was launched by the City of New Haven in November 2017, police officers are meant to work together with individuals found to have committed low-level offenses such as prostitution and drug abuse and offer them help instead of arresting them. However, the social program appears to be failing to achieve its goals, argued a panel on Wednesday night.

“The city dropped the ball,” said Beatrice Codianni, who is the founding director of Sex Workers and Allies Network, one of the activist groups present at Wednesday’s panel. The groups were joined by several students from the Law School and the School of Public Health.

LEAD began in Seattle in 2011 as a four-year pilot program and has since developed programs in Santa Fe and Albany. The mayor’s office in New Haven is running a two-year pilot of LEAD, according to the panelists’ report. The program is currently operating in Police Districts 1, 3 and 5, the report noted.

The Sex Workers and Allies Network presented their criticisms of the New Haven LEAD program, focusing especially on the program’s lack of transparency and the absence of community members within its administration.

“In order to be branded as an actual LEAD program, LEAD must first include not only service providers and the city, but also community groups and people with relevant, lived experience,” said Evan Serio, director of programming and advocacy for Sex Workers and Allies Network, referring to those with experience in sex work, drug abuse, poverty and homelessness. “Those people need to be at the table in order for this to actually go anywhere.”

Currently, few such individuals are part of New Haven’s LEAD program. According to Serio, while LEAD in other cities like Albany has been very open to community groups’ participation in the administration of the program, New Haven’s model operates without that openness. Instead, the Elm City program remains under the jurisdiction of a limited number of government employees, said Sophie Wheelock SPH ’19.

Panel members attempted to reach LEAD project manager for the city of New Haven Cynthia Watson, who did not respond to their requests for comment. A similar attempt was made by the News with the same result.

An interview with a spokesperson of the LEAD National Support Bureau suggested that while other programs like LEAD in Seattle operate with a clear accountability system and a balance of community and government involvement, LEAD in New Haven “lacks a clear structure for power-sharing between government, law enforcement, human services providers and community leaders.”

However, the spokesperson said that the organization is satisfied with the efforts of community groups to become involved, adding that the current state of affairs within New Haven is only concerning if the lack of accountability persists.

According to the Bureau, the involvement of local organizations is critical in voicing concerns and in ensuring that the decisions regarding LEAD satisfy the expectations of all parties involved, whether they be organizers or program participants.

Members of the panel criticized the lack of dialogue within the community regarding the initiative, also pointing out that the routine reporting mandated in LEAD’s original grant agreement is not being fulfilled — and, if it is, the related records are not being made public.

According to speakers on the panel, LEAD has only released one report since the program was launched nine months ago. The report claimed that 22 people had been diverted into the program, but no record of names or consent forms was ever released. Speakers on the panel also said that the only accessible information was records of the original LEAD agreement, and even those were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Panelists also noted that the first report meeting, scheduled for Oct. 23, was scheduled almost a full year after the program was announced.

The Bureau spokesperson told the News that partners in the New Haven LEAD effort, as well as local community organizers interested in the model, have consulted with the organization periodically. According to the Bureau, a New Haven delegation visited Seattle on April 27 for an in-depth site visit, and another delegation just completed a visit to Albany’s Bureau-certified LEAD program.

Criticism of LEAD’s reluctance to share information was compounded with criticisms of the diversion process. When a police officer encounters someone they would normally arrest for drug abuse or sex work, LEAD’s model requires that the officer refer that person to a social worker, who in turn offers LEAD as an alternative to arrest.

However, according to some speakers at the panel, having police officers facilitate these first few steps can be problematic.

“The police, there are one or two of them that have been phenomenal,” said Christine, a Fair Haven sex worker who did not wish to be identified by her full name and who has been homeless for more than two years. “But as the child of a police officer myself, I find it appalling the way that we’re spoken to sometimes and treated.”

Christine and other panel members recommended the removal of police officers from the diversion process.

Sammy Westfallsammy.westfall@yale.edu

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu .

SAMMY WESTFALL
VALERIE PAVILONIS