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Is Seattle's new drug law working?

caption: Patrol cars and ambulances are shown at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
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Patrol cars and ambulances are shown at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

It's been about six weeks since Seattle's new law against public drug use and possession went into effect. The ordinance was written to bring the city in line with a new state law that treats things like having or using fentanyl in public as a gross misdemeanor.

One of the directives handed down to Seattle Police is to emphasize diversion when enforcing the law.

Diversion isn't a new strategy for Seattle. KUOW reporter Kate Walters said the approach has been around for more than a decade.

"Diversion basically means that when an officer arrests someone for low level crime, they send them to services within the community instead of sending them to jail," Walters said.

That means they'll call case managers with the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, or LEAD. That case manager will then help with things like housing, legal issues, addiction treatment, etc.

The new law, which went into effect Oct. 20, gives the Seattle City Attorney's Office the ability to prosecute people for possession of illegal drugs like fentanyl, or for using them in public.

For the last several years, these crimes have been classified as misdemeanors, and referrals for diversion services were required prior to arrest.

According to the Seattle Police Department, as of the end of November, 47 arrests have been made under the city's new drug law. Of those arrests, 33 people have been diverted.

"They say those who have been booked into jail either committed or had outstanding warrants for unrelated crimes, and some were in unlawful possession of firearms," Walters said.

But, the process isn't easy.

"From what I've been told, for someone to go through this program and stabilize relatively quickly, you're looking at about a year," Walters said. "And that's the fast end. So others may need support for multiple years, you know, potentially a decade or more."

That's difficult, especially when combined with scarcity of resources. LEAD has a limited number of case managers to help, and limited access to housing, Walters said.

Lisa Daugaard helped create the LEAD program in Seattle in 2011. She told Walters that Seattle Police has projected that there would be 500 to 700 arrest diversions in 2024. But as of now, there's no additional funding for LEAD services in the 2024 budget.

"We do not have capacity to take even that number of new referrals, and continue to work with our existing clients," Daugaard said, "let alone also accommodate community referrals."

But Walters said that, as of now, most people who were arrested and diverted when the law took effect have completed their intake and are now in the process of making plans with case managers.

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