ITHACA, N.Y. –– Just over a year ago, the City of Ithaca unveiled the details of The Ithaca Plan, a radical drug policy that included 20 courses of action for dealing with the city’s opioid and drug-driven problems. One phrase was repeated again and again, like the mantra of the bold move: we cannot arrest our way out of this.
But months before The Ithaca Plan was announced, the Ithaca Police Department was already delving into a progressive program to address the drug “epidemic” happening in the city. It’s called the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Plan and it allows for police to have an 180-degree alternative method when dealing with drug users.
“Historically, police officers have been, you know, it’s our job to make the arrest and put people in the criminal justice system. So this is different…this is not the norm for policing. It’s a radical change, if you will,” Ithaca Police Chief John Barber said.
In the past few months, he said four people have volunteered to be on the LEAD team: Sgt. Kevin Slattery, Officer Jacob Allard, Officer Mary Orsaio and Officer Caprice VanAuken.
They each have their own reasons for joining the team, but for VanAuken, 28, her reasons are professional and personal.
She said her father struggled with alcoholism, and she lost her brother to addiction when she was 14 years old.
“He had a drug addiction to marijuana and it ultimately caused him to crash his car, which is how he died — in a car accident,” VanAuken said.
She said Aaron VanAuken, 21, needed to smoke marijuana to feel normal and complete simple tasks, like driving. He and a passenger were passing a pipe back and forth to each other when one of them dropped it. Both men reached down for it and VanAuken lost control of his car, crashing head-on into another vehicle and getting rear-ended.
He was ejected from his vehicle and died, Caprice VanAuken said.
“Definitely, that’s where my passion truly hit home to become a police officer because it was more than just a job to me. It actually meant something,” she said.
VanAuken has been a police officer for about five years. She served at the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office before becoming an IPD officer in 2015.
The LEAD program in Ithaca, she said, will give her and other IPD officers the chance to make a real difference to people — not just the offenders, but also their family members and other community members directly or indirectly impacted by drug addiction.
“We’re not just out there to arrest somebody. We truly do care,” VanAuken said. “Most people don’t want to get arrested and we don’t want to make an arrest if it’s a problem that we can help solve and keep crime down.”
The nuts and bolts of the program
If Chief Barber’s thoughts about the LEAD program were boiled down to four sentences, they would be:
The program is not a get out of jail free card. It’s not for everyone. It will save taxpayers money. And most importantly, it will absolutely work to save people’s lives.
LEAD is meant to help people stuck in a repetitive cycle of low-level crimes prompted by a person’s addiction.
“For example, if they were involved in a violent crime, they’re too far gone. We’re not interested in that. If it’s felony-level, we’re probably not going to be interested in that either,” Barber said. “That’s not appropriate.”
Barber said that the department currently handles between a dozen to 20 low-level offenders — people part of the revolving door of criminal justice locally — whose crimes are motivated by drug use and addiction.
For instance, a person might steal a watch from a store not because the person wants the watch, but because they intend to sell or trade it for money to buy drugs.
Under IPD’s current practices, the person would either be issued a ticket or taken into custody, depending on the severity of the crime. Other factors, such as one’s criminal history and parole or probation status are also considered.
Eventually, if the person is found guilty, he or she will likely have to pay fines or serve jail time. If a person is eligible for current diversion programs, like drug court, then a person has to adhere to an abstinence-only method, developed with a one-size-fits-all mentality.
A few requirements of drug court include random drug testing throughout the week and bi-weekly check-ins at county court in Ithaca that can last for hours.
An official policy for a local LEAD program is still in the works, but after months of attending conferences about harm reduction and visiting existing LEAD programs in Albany and Seattle, Barber and the LEAD officers have a basic idea of what the program would look like in Ithaca.
Barber said the intent will be to make a genuine effort to stop the cycle of recidivism and substance abuse, an effort he says means that IPD would be one piece of a much larger puzzle.
The local LEAD program would mean, first and foremost, that a complainant agrees to have a defendant participate in the diversion program or an officer uses discretion to determine if the defendant is eligible for LEAD.
Then, after a person is taken into custody, a case management meeting happens shortly afterward — the same day or the following day.
The meeting would consist of a variety of people: a representative from the District Attorney’s Office, a lawyer for the defendant, and service providers to help the person with an array of needs, such as housing, mental health options, or addiction services.
An individual plan will then be made for each person based on what his or her needs are.
“This is not an abstinence-based program,” Barber said. “You have to recognize that each individual is in different phases.”
This might mean, he said, that a person is assisted with life-stabilizing resources — housing, mental health services, employment — before weaning a person off a substance is tackled head-on. And even then, Barber recognizes that there will be setbacks.
“They may very well get a new charge or we’ll consider that with the panel. We’ll talk about why they offended and go from there. It’s not a free ticket, a get out of jail ticket, that’s for sure. We have to have people who are willing to commit to the program and we will recognize that there will be setbacks.”
VanAuken said recognizing that imperfections will be part of the program can be a hard pill for people to swallow.
Even within the department, she said, “Some people are the old school mentality. I think life experience has a lot to do with it.”
But she and Barber said they recognize that change will come slowly.
Barber said, “This will succeed but there will be setbacks and there will be case studies of people who were referred to the program and then perhaps failed out of it. But we’ll have success stories too. I’m confident of that. It’s just changing the norm.”
Barber said that while IPD is moving closer to being able to put LEAD into action, there are still kinks to work out.
He said an effort is being made to involve the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department in the program, and at least one deputy is interested in joining LEAD.
And IPD needs to work with other referral services to handle issues of housing, mental health services, addiction services, legal representation and employment.
LEAD programs in other cities have evolved to include people charged with sex crimes or mental-health-driven offenses. But Barber said the program isn’t evolved enough to work other aspects into the fold yet.
“We want to make sure that the program, overall, is effective. So I think we have to take baby steps because this is a completely outside of the box approach for the Ithaca PD and this community, ” he said. “So I could see the program growing at some point absolutely.”
An official start date for the LEAD program has not been determined yet.