New Haven residents, students and government employees met Tuesday at John C. Daniels School to discuss New Haven’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and how it interacts with the community.

The program, known by its acronym LEAD, provides rehabilitative services for those involved in offenses such as drug abuse or prostitution, instead of sending those individuals directly to prison. Cities like Seattle and Albany have successfully implemented LEAD, while New Haven introduced a pilot LEAD model in 2017. But at a teach-in hosted by community leaders and Yale graduate students last month in Baker Hall, participants discussed concern over LEAD’s allegedly ambiguous policies in the Elm City.

At last month’s meeting, attendees voiced complaints about the lack of community involvement within LEAD. Tuesday’s meeting, directed by LEAD Project Manager Cynthia Watson, attempted to answer for some of those concerns.

“We are backpedaling, initiating the community piece now,” Watson said. “Yes, it should’ve been done before. We have to just move forward with what we have now. It’s kind of a lesson learned as well.”

LEAD works to prevent arrests of those involved in substance-related crimes by instead channeling them into rehabilitative services, directed by a caseworker. At Tuesday’s meeting, Watson and other members of law enforcement stressed that LEAD is not required; rather, an individual who would normally be arrested has the option of LEAD as an alternative.

However, according to Dakibu Muley, the administrator of the Community Services Administration, police have diverted only two people to LEAD in the history of the program.

In the meeting, prosecutor David Strollo explained why so few have chosen LEAD.  He said that in a “more liberal” city like New Haven, it is a simple matter to avoid incarceration on a drug charge. So if offenders don’t have a full understanding of LEAD, they may choose arrest as the simpler option.

“Part of the culture of New Haven [is that] people realize there’s really not a jailable offense they’re worried about,” said Strollo.

According to Strollo, the New Haven model cannot exactly match successful models like Seattle’s because of the differences in the local criminal justice systems. Changes must be accomodated, he added.

In New Haven, arrest cases are brought directly to court, whereas in Seattle, cases are screened by the prosecutor’s office before being brought before a judge.

Watson noted that Seattle had to make changes to its own LEAD model for it to become successful. She emphasized that New Haven’s LEAD is a pilot program, urging attendees to be understanding of some of LEAD’s shortcomings, and encouraging the group to look ahead as LEAD progresses and opens up to the community.

According to Watson, organizations of many functions and backgrounds must be involved in LEAD’s next steps.

“You cannot expect to see change if you have only one type of person in the room,” said Watson. “You have to have a diverse population of individuals. That means organizations … whatever their nature is, you have to have all of those pieces involved, otherwise the paradigm shift that we are looking for and that we want to see happen, will not happen.”

The meeting later delved into the minutiae of LEAD’s power structure — exploring and defining the committees that exist within the program, as well as those that have yet to be created.

At last month’s teach-in, one complaint levied by attendees focused on the lack of information regarding LEAD’s operational workgroup, which in theory would give community groups a seat at the table. At Tuesday’s meeting, Watson said organizations like Cornell Scott Hill Health Center sat on the operational workgroup, and Watson invited attendees to list the organizations they thought could also contribute.

Yale graduate students who attended the meeting and hosted last month’s teach-in brought other concerns to the conversation, focusing on the alleged lack of transparency within New Haven’s LEAD program as well as the potential for the misuse of divertees’ personal information.

For instance, according to students’ comments on LEAD’s consent forms, if an individual signs up for LEAD, they could allow police and prosecutors to gain access to potentially damaging information relating to their mental health or possible abuse history.

Ben Metcalf, a licensed clinical social worker, denied that such a situation exists in LEAD’s system.

“[The] information shared doesn’t go into depth about someone’s mental health,” Metcalf said. “It’s not some sort of Orwellian thing where officers now have information with intimate details about your life.”

While the meeting did address some concerns originally brought up at the teach-in, Devin Race LAW ’19 was not impressed.

“We know that this is a pilot program and the city is trying to figure things out,” said Race. “But when they were asked what specific ways the community was going to give input … they didn’t give a clear answer.”

According to Watson, a follow-up meeting similar to Tuesday’s will take place in November.

Valerie Pavilonis| .