ITHACA, N.Y. — As Ithaca is in the process of developing a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, on Monday experts gave an informal presentation and had a conversation with community members about how the program has worked in other cities.

LEAD is a diversion program rooted in harm reduction that is meant to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system and connect them with services, whether that’s drug treatment, mental health care, housing or other needs.

Monday evening, Najja Morris, operations adviser for the LEAD National Support Bureau and Keith Brown, director of policing strategies for the LEAD National Support Bureau, shared their experience with the LEAD programs underway in Seattle and Albany and answered questions from the community.

Brown told attendees at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center that LEAD is another tool police officers have when responding to situations.

“Up until LEAD, we only gave officers a binary option for how to handle situations, but their accountability is to the community, to businesses, to other people to maintain public safety,” Brown said. “When a business calls and says ‘X’ is going on, right? The business is not saying to the cops ‘I want this person arrested,’ they’re saying I want you to address this issue. Up until LEAD, if the only option a person had was to arrest them or to ignore it — you can’t ignore it because then the business, everyone’s going to get bent out of shape if you ignore it — so your only other tool is what? Arrest. … When this becomes ingrained, it’s another tool they have when they show up.”

The presentation Monday did not focus on Ithaca’s efforts to create a LEAD program, but instead talked about the program broadly and what has worked in other cities. But naturally since Ithaca is pursuing this program, local residents had questions about how it would operate, what services it would connect people with, how it might address racial disparities in arrests and systemic barriers.

At a presentation in June, Sgt. Kevin Slattery and Officer Mary Orsaio discussed Ithaca’s LEAD program in development.

To be considered for LEAD, Orsaio said at the presentation, the offender would have to be compliant and not a danger to the community with a non-violent history. If a person was enrolled in the LEAD program, they would meet with a LEAD intake officer to discuss further resources available to them.

How it has worked in other cities for someone to be diverted to LEAD, an officer needs to make a recommendation, the offender needs to agree and if there is a complainant, they also need to agree. For example, if a shop owner called the police for theft, they would need to agree.

Provided by LEAD National Support Bureau.

A main point that was emphasized, was that LEAD takes a harm reduction and trauma-informed approach to people. It does not take an abstinence-based approach, Morris said. While it’s a criminal justice program, it’s also a public health and safety program, Morris said.

“Where can this person have less harm in their life?” Morris said. “There are some immediate things we think of when we think of harm reduction, right? We think of clean needles and condoms and safe consumption sites, which I heard you guys are talking about here as well, we think of physical things. But there’s a way in which we do case management from a trauma informed, harm reduction perspective that speaks to the whole individual and listens to what that person wants and thinks about where can we start to just reduce the harms? … Part of harm reduction is giving that person the space to have input on what would be good for them, what’s happened in their life and really hearing their story about how they got here.”

Morris said she considers LEAD more of a long marathon rather than a sprint. Even if someone has “fallen off the wagon” a few times, Morris said in Seattle the program has given people more days, more life and more hope.

Related: Update on the Ithaca LEAD program: how it will save lives, money, resources

Brown gave an example of a young woman diverted in Albany who had just turned 18.

He said he she was using heroin and was arrested for shoplifting. Brown said though everyone’s first reaction was to get her into treatment, it turned out after a case manager spoke with her, that the girl had a history of sexual trauma. Using heroin was a way to numb that trauma and cope, Brown said. Instead of forcing her into treatment, the case manager asked her what she wanted. The girl said she wanted to go back to school and get her GED so she could get a job and move forward with her life. So they helped her do that.

“Ultimately what happened, she started going to GED classes and then over time can anyone guess what happened to her drug use?” Brown asked. He said it went down and down until it stopped.

Morris said LEAD most benefits people who have been struggling for a long time.

“When you think about those people that just for a long time have not been doing well and systems have failed them and the criminal justice system has failed them and social services has failed them and we have failed them. Those are the people, the people that have been failed are the people that most benefit from LEAD and that LEAD has most been designed for,” Morris said.

Attendees asked who would make the guidelines for LEAD and who would track data. Morris and Brown responded that police should not be the only ones developing guidelines, it should be a community effort.

The LEAD programs in other cities have community leadership teams. In Albany, the LEAD program launched in 2016 with collaboration between the police, district attorney, civil rights advocates, public defenders, political leaders, mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers and business and neighborhood leaders.

“It needs to be a collaborative process,” Brown said.

Featured image: From left, Keith Brown, director of policing strategies, and Najja Morris, operations adviser, both with the LEAD National Support Bureau. 

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.