June 21, 2018
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Bangor struggles to find success with program aimed at reducing drug arrests

Nok-Noi Ricker | BDN
Nok-Noi Ricker | BDN
Bangor Police Sgt. Jason McAmbley announces the rollout of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in this March 2017 file photo. The program is designed to assist drug users who commit low-level, nonviolent crimes with resources designed to help stabilize their lives, instead of sending them to jail. Also pictured are Gretchen Ziemer, criminal justice coordinator for Health Equity Alliance, and Kenney Miller, executive director of the alliance, which successfully applied for funding for the LEAD program.
By Callie Ferguson, BDN Staff
Updated:

A city program that trains Bangor police officers how to connect low-level drug offenders with a caseworker to help them avoid jail has enrolled fewer than half as many people as expected during its first year.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program is aimed at keeping people battling drug use from going or returning to jail. At a March 2017 press conference when LEAD was announced, Bangor officials called it a creative, nonpunitive way to combat a statewide drug crisis that has overcrowded county jails and killed about one person per day in Maine. It is a collaboration between the Bangor Police Department and local health nonprofit Health Equity Alliance.

But the program’s lackluster results — with only 13 people enrolling during its first year, when officials anticipated at least 30 participants — highlight discomfort with the changing role of law enforcement, in the middle of a drug crisis that has forced police to absorb the duties of a social worker.

When LEAD launched, Bangor struggled to recruit police officers to participate. Only 11 officers in the department’s 79-person force signed up to receive the nonmandatory, two-hour program training, and one has since left, according to Bangor Sgt. Jason McAmbley, who oversees LEAD.

And the officers who took the LEAD training, he said, have since said that most people to whom they offer the program don’t want to participate and usually deny they have a drug problem.

“We totally expected it to be full,” McAmbley said.

Those results surprised the sergeant, who hoped to replicate the success of other cities with LEAD programs, such as Seattle, which pioneered the program. There, the city’s 318 participants saw their odds of going back to jail go down by 58 percent.

Studies have shown that incarcerating people isn’t an effective way to reduce drug crimes or drug use. More than half of adults in Maine who spend time in jail for drug crimes are arrested again within three years of their release, according to the Maine Statistical Analysis Center’s most recent 2013 study on adult recidivism.

Bangor’s LEAD program augments an initiative that has existed inside the Bangor Police Department since 2016. That’s when social worker Andrea Carver began riding along with patrol officers, offering support to people when police encountered someone with a substance use problem. Portland has a similar program.

But in Bangor, not all officers are interested in taking on roles that have traditionally fallen to social workers, McAmbley said, which may be why the program never garnered widespread buy-in from the police department’s rank-and-file.

“They’re not interested in what the users are doing,” McAmbley said. “They’re interested in the larger problem of nailing the dealers and getting the large amounts of drugs off the street.”

Some officers, he added, still believe that people found with drugs should be held accountable by going to jail.

In Bangor, the LEAD program comes into play when a police officer encounters someone involved in drugs — whether they’ve overdosed, are found with a small quantity or have committed a petty crime because of their substance use, McAmbley said. The officer then asks them if they’re interested in enrolling in the program.

Eligible participants are not arrested if they decline the offer, according to McAmbley. People found with large quantities of drugs — more than 3 grams — or who have domestic violence convictions are disqualified.

If the person accepts the referral, HEAL caseworker Ashley Brown contacts them within a few days.

The pair then work together to cover the person’s basic needs, whether it’s housing, treatment or a job. Abstaining from drug use isn’t required, unlike the requirement for offenders who go through the state’s drug courts.

Bangor police have referred only 11 people to Brown, who was only able to reach five of those people and get them enrolled, she said.

Eight people in the program came from other sources, after Brown eventually opened it up to self-referrals and people coming through HEAL’s needle exchange. That means of those now in the program, fewer than half were diverted by police officers.

So far, only two of the program’s participants have gone back to jail, both for violating their bail conditions, Brown said.

It’s not clear if training more officers will boost enrollment.

“Most of the people being offered this program [by an officer] — most of their responses are, ‘I don’t have a problem,’” McAmbley said.

That has caused some exasperation among Bangor officers, he said, who respond to an average of one overdose a day. For LEAD to work, “they’ve got to want to help themselves,” he said.

Brown is planning another training with Bangor police but is also considering opening it up to other cities. She and McAmbley have also approached the district attorney’s office for help finding referrals.

McAmbley also suspects officers might have better luck if they approach people at a later time — outside the scene of a crime or days after an overdose, he said. That’s how the program’s first participant enrolled, he said.

“But the thing is, we don’t have the time to do that,” McAmbley said. “Amidst all the things they’ve been doing, they don’t have time to go out and make the sales pitch.”

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