With calls across the country for police reform, the Lynnwood Police Department is seeing early success with a program that offers low-level offenders community health and social services rather than jail time.
In partnership with the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Everett Police Department, Lynnwood police have been aiming to reduce criminal recidivism and improve community health and safety by offering eligible and willing offenders case management and support services to steer them away from the revolving door of jail and prosecution.
The Snohomish County LEAD Program began in Lynnwood five months ago and is funded by a $1.685 million grant from the Washington State Health Care Authority. Since its implementation, approximately 100 people are enrolled in the program, said Lynnwood Police Sgt. David Byrd.
“It’s been working extremely well,” he said.
The cities of Lynnwood and Everett share five case managers provided by Evergreen Recovery Center. Each case manager serves 25 clients, which Byrd said allows them to offer more intensive services. In Lynnwood, the program falls under the police department’s Community Health and Safety Section Outreach Team, which conducts outreach to those who are often homeless and living with substance use disorders and/or mental health issues.
The process starts with police offering to connect qualifying offenders with a case manager who will help provide them with resources for mental health and/or substance abuse issues. According to Byrd, divertible offenses include both misdemeanor and some felony crimes, like low-level drug charges, vandalism, park code violations and prostitution. During normal business hours, officers can offer offenders either pre-arrest diversion or social contact referrals.
“Let’s say we meet a homeless person out in the park — we can call the LEAD number and if it’s between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. a case manager will try to be sent out within 30 minutes,” he said.
During business hours, Byrd said case managers have been very responsive. If it’s after hours, Byrd said officers can leave a message with the potential patient’s location so case managers can contact them the next day.
A key aspect of LEAD, Byrd said, is relationship building between case managers and clients to begin setting them on the path to a better quality of life.
“We want to improve public safety and really address the needs of our participants by getting to the root of what’s going on with them,” he said.
LEAD program manager Ashley Dawson said the program is similar to providing outpatient services, with clients moving from “active” to “inactive” status depending on their needs.
“If (clients) haven’t been engaged in a month — and that’s not to say that they leave the program it just means we can focus on the people who are engaged — then a person can start back up any time they need to,” she said. “They can be in LEAD forever if they need that support and it looks different for everyone.”
Prior to joining the LEAD program, Dawson worked with the Lynnwood and Edmonds police departments as an embedded social worker. When Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith asked all city departments to reduce spending in response to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, funding for the position was threatened and Dawson left to join the LEAD program.
Currently, Lynnwood has one embedded social worker, funded by a grant from the Verdant Health Commission and the position is now shared with the Mountlake Terrace Police Department.
In many situations, Dawson said some folks just need someone to help guide them through the process of accessing services.
“For a lot of people, the basics of sitting in a waiting room, filling out paperwork, going to court on time, getting to court, all of those things tend to feel like major hurdles,” she said. “So, our case managers are there to support people through them.”
While case managers are investing a lot of time in each client, Dawson said they are just guiding them and are not offering substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling
“(Case managers) are connecting clients to appropriate services,” she said. “A lot of times people just end up with a list of services and they’re expected to call all the numbers and navigate it and that tends to be just a total dead end. With our program, our case managers are really knowledgeable about appropriate resources.”
The LEAD program isn’t the only effort law enforcement is making to provide offenders with alternatives to incarceration. The City of Lynnwood is planning to expand its police department and courts with a new Community Justice Center. The center will also partner with the neighboring Community Health Center (CHC) to help inmates meet court mandates like drug addiction and mental health treatments, as well as health assessments like HIV testing for intravenous drug users. The partnership will help both organizations provide a continuity of care for those low-level misdemeanor offenders. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 or into early 2023.
As the program expands, Dawson said that LEAD would be willing to work with community partners too.
“Partnership is huge and our goal is to provide real quality care,” he said. “It’s collaborative (and) we recognize that there’s kind of a complex situation for most of our participants.”
–By Cody Sexton