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Should Erie County take 'LEAD' in tackling addiction? The DA seeks answers

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

The Erie County District Attorney is interested in bringing a program to Buffalo that gives law enforcers the option to assist individuals committing low-level drug-related offenses an opportunity to seek help, while avoiding arrest. On Wednesday, DA John Flynn and other local authorities heard information from peers in Albany, one of only three cities in the nation that have what is known as LEAD.

LEAD stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. It's an intervention tool police can use to decide whether an individual they are dealing with may be better served through professional help. What makes it different from drug court is that it is utilized without making an arrest.

"The police officer who comes upon the individual, after they've committed a low-level crime, makes a decision to divert the person and not arrest this person," said Flynn. "That's the main difference."

The LEAD program was introduced in Seattle in 2011. Sante Fe, New Mexico and Albany, New York are the only other cities to have implemented LEAD since. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Ithaca and New York City have also expressed interest in forming LEAD programs. So, too, have San Francisco, Philadelphia, Portland Maine and Houston.

Under the program, those eligible for diversion without arrest have a known history of issues including drug or alcohol abuse, poverty, mental illness or homelessness and have committed offenses including low-level criminal possession of controlled substances and non-violent misdemeanors.

Flynn says he is in support of the concept and would like to bring it to Erie County. He welcomed guests from Albany to Evergreen Commons in Buffalo Thursday to share their experiences with the program.

One of the guests was Dr. Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany. She says one of the benefits of LEAD is that it collects data that helps the community keep police accountable and ensure diversions are considered in a fair and balanced way.

"A lot of times, it would allow us to go back to the police department and to LEAD and say something's wrong here, we're not diverting as many people of color as we thought," said Dr. Green. "They look at all of the demographics and say what are we doing. We look at who's not diverted and who's diverted."

While he supports the idea, Flynn says he has questions for his Albany peers about how to assemble the model. The next step is to bring those Albany counterparts together with representatives of law enforcement. Flynn believes police will the toughest audience for making a pitch.

"What we have to do now is get into specifics to talk exactly about how this is going to work," Flynn said. "Who's going to pay for it? Where's the money going to come from? Who are the case managers? Who are the service providers? Are we OK with these people?

"Once we answer all these questions, then we'll know how close we are to getting this here in Buffalo."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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