Home » Side event: Should Police be leading reform? Diversion schemes, decriminalisation and drug consumption rooms

Side event: Should Police be leading reform? Diversion schemes, decriminalisation and drug consumption rooms

Organized by Law Enforcement Action Partnership UK and Law Enforcement Action Partnership US

James Nicholls, Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Police Diversion Schemes in the UK
Context: 43 forces; 7 with existing diversion schemes. 135,000 simple possession arrests in the UK in 2019. Reduced police resources. Increased incidences of more serious violent crime (including drug-related). Introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners. Wider acceptance of the principle that criminalization for simple possession creates additional harms. ‘Decriminalisation’ not national policy, and remains politically controversial, but ‘diversion’ acceptable as local response

Variations in designs:

  • Checkpoint: ’deferred prosecution’ on signing of 3-month reoffending contract and engagement with ‘navigator’
  • Avon and Somerset: on-street referral to 3-hour education programme
  • Thames Valley: ’community resolution’ signed, no limitation

The role of champions:

  • PCCs: Ron Hogg (Durham), David Jamieson (West Midlands), Arfon Jones (North Wales)
  • Senior police: DCI Jason Kew (TVP)
  • Civil society: LEAP UK, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Scottish Drugs Forum, Treatment providers

National support:

  • Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs
  • Home Office accepts that decision-making is devolved to local police forces
  • Widespread engagement from among small and large service providers
  • Cited as examples of good practice by Minister responsible
  • Increasing support in local and national media – very little pushback

General comments:

  • Diversion schemes attract little opposition when introduced
  • As more local areas adopt schemes, they become more viable and attractive
  • Local champions are essential to drive the agenda
  • National champions (e.g. LEAP and Transform) can support knowledge-exchange, sharing best practice and advocacy
  • Local evaluations showing considerable success. Effectiveness also shown in recent international evaluations (e.g. Stevens, A. et al. (2019) Depenalization, diversion and decriminalization: a realist review and programme theory of alternatives for simple drug possession. European Journal of Criminology
  • More evaluation data needed, but evidence so far is positive
  • Political support increasing
  • Potential for significant reduction in harms of criminalization as schemes roll out more widely.

Suzanne Sharkey, LEAP UK

It’s a privilege and a miracle to be here today, to have an opportunity to discuss the necessary involvement of Police in Drug Reform. I hope to emphasis the urgent need for not only diversion schemes, harm reduction facilities like DCRs but ultimately the decriminalisation of people who use drugs. Whilst I have served as a Police Officer my perspective is slightly different and so  will tell you a little about myself and my journey to this point. Over 11years ago I woke up in hospital, I had tried to kill myself again…

At the time and as I still am, I am a mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend. I have 2 university degrees, worked as a secondary school teacher and as a Police Officer. So why did I want to kill myself? I was in the depths of an addiction, I used alcohol and other drugs problematically. I thought death would be a relief, I was exhausted from the daily fight trying not to use but failing every time. I did not know what was wrong with me. What I did know was that society judged me,made me feel more ashamed, it told me I was a bad person who failed on all moral fronts. That there was something fundamentally wrong with me, especially as a mother who could not stop using even for my children. Today I am over 11 years in recovery from alcohol and other drugs.

The irony is as a Police Officer I worked on a crime team under CID, running operations, managing informants and undercover drug buying. At the time as a serving police officer I thought I was doing the right thing. That these people where breaking the law they caused all the problems in the community; they were weak with no self will or drive to better themselves I judged them completely – I am ashamed that I thought that – It is ironic that I became one of those people I looked down upon and used to arrest.

What had I actually achieved? Had I helped make the communities I served a better safer place? All those operations carried out, all the individuals arrested for supplying but particularly for possession, all the time and money spent – did it work? Did it stop people using drugs, did it reduce the supply and demand for the drugs, did the enforcement of the drug laws work? Absolutely not. Did it stop people using drugs, did it reduce the supply and demand for the drugs, did the enforcement of the drug laws work? Absolutely not.

The reality was that I was arresting people from poor, socially deprived areas of high unemployment who already had little or no hope. Many whose only crime was non-violent drug possession simply small amounts of drugs for personal use. Or those dealing as the only way they could make a living to support their families. It was only through the clarity of recovery, meeting countless others like me, hearing their stories that I began to question my role as a Police Officer.

Many of those arrested needed help, support, health interventions and treatment not criminalisation. So what changed for me? It wasn’t the police cells and court appearances and criminalisation that helped; They eroded any dignity I had left, any self-worth I had was crushed. I wasn’t shown compassion or empathy only judgement, further stigmatisation and marginalisation. I was pushed into the shadows and made to feel I was some depraved person lacking moral fibre, that I just needed to pull myself together. In the end the only option left open to me was death – this should never be anybody’s best option.

It was the people I had seen in recovery who had on many occasions tried to help me. They were by my hospital bed. No matter what they continued to support me, showed me recovery was possible. They showed me empathy, compassion and understanding; They treated me like a worthwhile human being they nurtured me and loved me until I could do it myself. I learned to hold my head up and that I was a worthwhile human being I deserved to have a life. I deserved to live. This is what made me want to live again. And then I got angry.

Why did it have to get that bad, why was there seemingly no help, why did society abandon me. I am not looking to blame someone and as part of getting well I needed to take responsibility for myself, but also I couldn’t sit and do nothing. One of the hardest things I have had to face is the fact that people are needlessly dying that these are preventable deaths. So my journey into Drug Reform began.

What I am trying to say through my own experience that one of the biggest barriers of people getting into recovery and maintaining recovery is the criminalisation of those who use drugs. Criminalising people who are already suffering is horrific and its cruel, criminalising people for using through their own choice and not causing anybody any harm is unjust and this needs to stop. We need to change our approach. Our systems are broken, law enforcement in regards to the punitive enforcement of the drug laws for the past 60 years doesn’t work and we need to approach the problem differently not try and fix what we have. To just admit, you know what we got it wrong, and most importantly right these wrongs. As we have just heard from James and Brendan, the police realise that the problem is bigger than them that they alone can’t fix this. They have had to take a lead on this because those in power still refuse to acknowledge that the prohibition approach is not working.

Its not a case of should police be leading reform it’s a case of they have had no other choice. In the political environment Police currently work we can not wait for direction from our governments, they have to take a direction that is best for the communities’ they serve.

Diane Goldstein, LEAP

I worked as a police officer in the 80s in California. My brother was dual diagnosed and died in 2007 – and my views evolved – I could see how ineffectively we were using our resources. It took a personal tragedy and to watch the shame and stigma surrounding my family was heartbreaking. Everyone here has a different story – but we’re all here because of the failing of our drug laws. We need to explore other alternatives to conviction. We need to regulate all drugs and end prohibition. The emphasis on using the criminal justice system to address public health problems has cost so much money, and to no avail. Its resulted in reduced public health and structural racism in the US. It undermines the very legitimacy of law enforcement. Police role in drug war has done a lot of damage – and doesn’t stop drug use in our communities. The public knows this – there is declining public support for our drug policies. Many examples of reform are incomplete – but still represent progress. There is a call for medically supported treatment in our prisons. Law enforcement professionals aren’t the only ones calling for NSPs, naloxone, drug checking and safer supply. Decriminalisation is necessary as a true civil penalty. Socioeconomic and development factors need to be addressed in law enforcement policies – we must adopt strategies to reduce racial disparities. There is a bit of good news coming out of the states – but there is so much more we can do. We have the solutions – alternatives to incarceration can have a significant impact – but we must call out the elephant in the room -we must address public health and safety first – with regulation and harm reduction.

Brendan Cox, LEAD National Support Bureau, Director of Policing strategies

First and foremost, I want to thank you for the invitation to listen to us today and I want to thank my distinguished panelists who join me today to talk to you about why law enforcement executives around the world have needed to implement diversion programs so that people who use drugs do not face criminal charges but instead are approached from a public health mind-set.

I am currently the Director of Policing Strategies with the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) National Support Bureau. LEAD is a pre-arrest/pre-booking initiative that allows police officers to exercise discretionary authority at point of contact to divert individuals to a community based, harm reduction intervention for law violations driven by unmet behavioral health needs.

In addition to that I am an active member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and I am honored to be here with fellow distinguished colleagues from LEAP. Prior to my position with the LEAD National Support Bureau, I spent 23 years with the Albany, NY police department, retiring as Chief of Police in 2017. When I began my career in 1994 the mindset in law enforcement was arrest anyone that had anything to do with drugs. We were full go into the war on drugs and thought we were fighting a righteous fight and helping people.

Twenty-five plus years later, I know better. I know that the criminal justice system is not the appropriate place to treat people with substance use disorders. I know that punishment is not a humane way to treat those who suffer from the disease of addiction and that punishment does not change behavior. The United States has proven that over and over again. Yet we continue in the cycle of insanity and lead the world in incarceration. Even as some states look to make changes in such things as cannabis regulations others are enhancing sentences based on substance type – a mistake we clearly didn’t learn from crack cocaine enhancements which helped create the state of mass incarceration we are in today.

One way in which we are changing that narrative is through LEAD. In 2011, in an attempt to move away from the War on Drugs paradigm and to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system, LEAD, a harm-reduction oriented process for responding to low-level offenses such as drug possession, sales, and sex work, was developed and launched in Seattle, WA. LEAD was the result of an unprecedented collaboration between police, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, public defenders, political leaders, mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers and other service agencies, and business and neighborhood leaders — working together to find innovative ways to solve problems for individuals who frequently cycle in and out of the criminal justice system under the familiar approach that relies on arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. These, of course, do not always = Public Safety

In  LEAD , police officers exercise discretionary authority at the point of contact to divert individuals to a community based, harm reduction intervention for law violations driven by unmet behavioral health needs, In lieu of the criminal justice cycle — booking, detention, prosecution, conviction, incarceration – individuals are referred into a trauma-informed intensive case management program where the individual receives a wide range of support services, often including transitional and permanent housing and/or drug treatment. Law enforcement works closely with case managers to ensure that all contacts with LEAD participants going forward, including new criminal prosecution for other offenses, are coordinated with the service plan for the participant to maximize the opportunity to achieve behavioral change. At its core, LEAD builds a foundation to provide for a long-term system of care that is person-based and rooted in harm reduction. Looking at the whole person over a long period of time allows for more permanent changes that increase positive changes in the person and improve public safety outcomes. LEAD acts as the valve to direct the person into the right set of solutions – not pre-determined programming that tends to fail persistent low-level offenders with long term behavioral illness.

LEAD now exists in over 60 jurisdictions in the United States. From the 2nd largest city of Los Angeles to small rural counties like Schoharie, NY. There is even work being done to bring LEAD internationally to Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, and South Africa. LEAD has not only grown in size but in scope. In many jurisdictions crimes that are driven by addiction, mental illness, homelessness, or poverty are being made eligible for diversion. This has opened the door for such things as property crimes and trespassing, where a person is committing that law violation simply due to their addiction or lack of housing, not because they are some kind of criminal mastermind. We know LEAD works. LEAD is evidence based. LEAD has been proven to reduce recidivism by 58%. It has been proven to save money. It improves outcomes, and it has been proven to improve relationships between police and communities.

I know more than anything how important those relationships are. I know how I helped fracture those relationships during my career. I know the damage that was done to communities, especially communities of color, when we took young men and sent them to prison for non-violent drug offenses and then continued to penalize them upon their return home by not allowing them to live in subsidized housing, or help them gain meaningful employment due to a felony conviction, or to even take part in democracy by not allowing them to vote. When a major civil rights leader approached my police department about doing things differently, we jumped at the chance. Just like when the opportunity to work with leaders around the United States, and now even around the world, came up with the National Support Bureau I jumped at that.

Here is the thing. Police leaders are being forced to find creative ways to get the criminal justice system out of the way so that we can help people – not punish them. LEAD, in many ways is de-facto decriminalization. I will challenge you the same thing I challenged people to when I was Chief of Police. Put me out of business. Let’s change the laws. Let’s end the war on drugs once and for all. And, we are here to tell you we have your back.

We are way past the point of knowing that our antiquated drug policies keep the war on drugs running strong. We also have far too much evidence that harm reduction methods save lives. Yet too many people continue to die while others make moral arguments around safe consumption sites, fentanyl testing strips, and syringe exchange while people die and contract life threatening diseases. These arguments only further stigmatize the very people we are trying to help and have no legitimacy to them. They are solely based on people’s moral standards – not evidence.

I’ll end my comments on what is somewhat of a theme today and try and answer the question we pose in our title.  Police are heading reform because they know reform is needed and they cannot wait for official reforms to take place. And, we are here to tell you that you have support from law enforcement leaders to make real change. These leaders are already making changes. They are taking it upon themselves to use their discretion to say enough. They are doing this despite the other political pressure to do otherwise.


Q: Erin Lalor, Alcohol and Drug Foundation: Often police are opponents for harm reduction – what are strategies to help support police support harm reduction?

Q: Please explain more about decriminalisation in your countries?

A: Diane: we support incremental step of decriminalisation – our problem is that our current decriminalisation as collateral consequences. In certain states, if you don’t show up to court, it’s a misdemeanour, and you can be arrested for it. It starts the cycle of people losing jobs and going to jail. We want to see a solution where you don’t get sent to jail. I think drug courts are problematic – they cherry pick the people who are going to be most successful.

A: Brendan: We do training and let officers ask all the questions they want. Harm reduction is about more, not less. When we have these discussions, a lot of people have ‘aha’ moments – and we find champions in individual police stations. There is nothing better than a successful diversion – these are the stories we need to hear. When case manager use harm reduction approaches we see success individuals – and then officer can see it working – then telling their own peers.

A: Suzanne: it’s up to the policy officers – its important that people with lived experienced tell their stories. Importance of police interventions – there is no benefit of people cycling in and out of the system – police do have a heart – they should hear stories

Q: Mike, Chief of Police near Vancouver – I support all of your work, and diversion programs – but I don’t have any funding to do this – any advice?

Q: Does each police force apply their own diversion program?

A: Brendan: it’s about finding the right case manager – the funding that is needed to support the case managers

A: Suzanne: In the US we see law enforcement folks opposed to diversion programs – as it could take a chunk of their funding – we haven’t successfully budgeted for the right programs – these programs are so important – law enforcement is tasked with solving societal problems without being given the best/smartest tools. Jail is not the smartest tool. We go to legislators and tell them this.

A: Brendan: LEAD is considered a collaborative approach – with many partners at the table. We need to call on the right people to help us make change

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