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How Non-Policing Programs Can Be Successful

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The slogan defund the police has become a rallying cry in demonstrations against racism and police brutality around the country. Advocates say that it's aimed at strategically redirecting resources away from police and toward social programs to address problems where police are often the first to respond. Those include substance abuse, gun violence, mental illness and homelessness. NPR's Eric Westervelt looks at two nonpolice programs that show promise and yet are struggling to expand.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Both initiatives are trying to reimagine public safety as a public health challenge. First, take Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, initiative. It allows police to bypass prosecution and jail time for certain offenses. The program connects people who've committed low-level crimes, such as minor drug offenses or prostitution, with service providers rather than seeing the person with a substance abuse problem cycle back through jail and back onto the streets.

LISA DAUGAARD: It is absolutely possible to secure public safety and order without overreliance on police.

WESTERVELT: Lisa Daugaard helped create LEAD nearly 10 years ago. She won a MacArthur Genius Award for this effort to try to revolutionize the care system for people struggling with chronic behavior or health issues. On the street, when LEAD is called, police officers do what's called a warm handoff to a case manager. That's an immediate transfer to a very different system, one that includes a variety of help and long-term interventions tailored to each person.

DAUGAARD: That initial call, that initial transaction, that's just the front door. In order for us to show improved outcomes for neighborhoods, for communities, for businesses who are willing to try this approach, you have to stick with people over the long haul. And you have to be vocal about identifying what are the missing resources that people need to do OK.

WESTERVELT: Missing resources or so-called wraparound services that are costly yet vital - counseling, health care, housing, help finding a job. Daugaard doesn't see this as a cure-all. She'd like to see mental health and drug courts added to the toolbox. And the program has its critics. They say it's merely worsened drug abuse and dealing and has yet to really deliver on long-term improvements for addicts or the city. They want more careful tracking and data on outcomes.

But at least one review shows LEAD is working. A 2015 study found that LEAD participants were nearly 60% less likely to be rearrested than people in a control group. And 46% of participants were more likely to have a job or undergoing job training.

Another scalable nonpolice effort that takes a public health approach to safety is the national program Cure Violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHARM CITY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The only way we going to get on top of this shooting and stuff, the streets - going to have to cure the streets.

WESTERVELT: Baltimore's version, called Safe Streets, got attention in this 2018 PBS documentary "Charm City."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHARM CITY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So what we do is we go into these neighborhoods, and we hire credible messengers. Most of the guys that work for the Safe Streets program have been locked up for murder charges, drug charges. But now they then turn their life around, and they go back into their own neighborhood.

BRANDON SCOTT: The peer groupness of it, I think, makes it extremely successful. I think its power is its authenticity. I think that's what it is.

WESTERVELT: That's Brandon Scott, Baltimore City Council president. He's long pushed to take a public health approach to Baltimore's enormous challenges. The city has long had one of the nation's worst drug and gun violence epidemics, even though the city spends the most per capita on police by far. The city still has giant problems, but Scott says in many of the eight areas with these paid violence-interruption mediators, shootings and homicides are down, sometimes dramatically.

SCOTT: We have to be willing to be uncomfortable because, for many people, they can't imagine a world where we're actually employing people who used to shoot people to tell people not to do it to other people. But when you can see neighborhoods like Cherry Hill, where when I was growing up wouldn't go a month without shooting, go a year without having a homicide and shooting, you know it works. You know it works.

WESTERVELT: But another thing these two programs have in common besides relative success, both are struggling to maintain adequate funding and support. Take Seattle's LEAD program. Founder Lisa Daugaard says despite the fact that several dozen cities are already copying it or looking to, there's still deep reluctance everywhere to scale a program that fundamentally switches the response from police to social services.

DAUGAARD: In every jurisdiction that's tried it, we're still locked in a battle over whether to expand it past a small boutique demonstration.

WESTERVELT: Similarly, in Baltimore, supporters have had to constantly fight efforts to cut funding to Safe Streets.

LEANA WEN: Public health programs are often the first on the chopping block.

WESTERVELT: Dr. Leana Wen helped expand Safe Streets when she was Baltimore's health commissioner. She recalls in her time that the entire amount of money the city allocated to public health was less than what it spent on police overtime. Now a professor of public health at George Washington University, Dr. Wen believes at day's end, if a program such as Safe Streets is working, it really doesn't matter if it's part of a police budget or housed elsewhere.

WEN: If they achieve the same outcome and improve public safety while at the same time, as Safe Streets did, improving community trust and changing norms around violence, then we should be funding these types of programs.

WESTERVELT: Today, Safe Streets faces a $200,000 budget hole. So while there's this national moment of momentum about police reform and moving responsibility out of their hands, there's no national mechanism to do that. All policing is local. And now in the wake of the pandemic, both of these promising nonpolice programs face new local challenges just staying afloat.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.