Metro introduces innovative jail-diversion program to curb low-level drug arrests, combat opioid epidemic

Mia Johnson has been stopped by the police more than a few times during her lifetime.

So when she was approached by officers last summer, she thought she knew what to expect. Most likely a citation for lodging in a park. A short jail stay wouldn’t be out the question.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, Johnson was given a choice: In lieu of a citation, she could choose to receive assistance and treatment.

After 40-plus years of struggling with addiction – the last four on the streets of Las Vegas – she was ready for the help officers were offering.

Through the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, Johnson was enrolled in treatment and counseling programs, secured a new ID, and signed up for eligible public benefits.

Today, she’s off the streets, living in an apartment secured through HELP of Southern Nevada, has maintained her treatment and counseling, and is looking to reenter the workforce.

LEAD was first developed and introduced in 2011 in Seattle, where police officers were given the discretion to connect certain low-level offenders – like those busted for drug possession or prostitution – with case workers instead of arresting them. The program has since been replicated in more than 20 cities across the country.

Eligible individuals have the opportunity to receive treatment and are connected with resources and services, and able to bypass the costs and time associated with booking, charging, and required court appearances.

The program also emphasizes and necessitates collaboration between law enforcement, city and county officials, service providers, and neighborhood and advocacy groups.

LEAD was introduced to Metro through Captain William Scott, who recognized the program as an opportunity to combat Southern Nevada’s growing opioid crisis and help address underlying issues that often afflict low-level offenders who frequently cycle in and out of the criminal justice system.

In 2017, Scott, who learned of LEAD at a national conference, assembled a small team to research the program and develop a plan for implementing it locally. For the better part of a year, Scott’s team visited Seattle to learn from the program’s originators, researched other LEAD programs implemented across the country, and began developing a network of service providers willing to partner with Metro.

Last summer, Metro launched a LEAD pilot program out of the Southeast Area Command, which was selected due to the high concentration of drug overdoses and narcotics-related calls received on Boulder Highway.

Although it’s been just over six months since its full launch, Metro has been pleased with the early results. As of early February, nearly 50 individuals assessed by LEAD officers have been referred to social service providers. Of those referred, nearly 60 percent were diverted from citation or arrest and were given the opportunity to receive treatment.

Those numbers will likely soon increase.

Metro plans to expand the program to additional area commands throughout 2019, according to Lissette Ruiz, an officer with the LEAD unit who worked with Scott from the early stages to bring the program to Metro.

Ruiz, currently one of two LEAD officers, will also be getting additional support. Through a partnership with HELP of Southern Nevada, two case managers dedicated to the LEAD program are expected to be hired to coordinate services for eligible individuals, freeing up Ruiz and her partner to continue building relationships in the community and train fellow officers on the program.

“Our goal is to implement LEAD valley-wide over the next few years,” said Ruiz. “We want it to become another tool officers can use to help address addiction on the streets, as well as show the community that we’re here to help.”

Implementing successful local and national examples of community-based partnerships with law enforcement to improve safety in communities experiencing high crime rates is an important component of the complete communities envisioned in the Southern Nevada Strong (SNS) regional plan.

For more information on the LEAD program, contact Metro’s Office of Community Engagement.

Note: To protect the privacy of certain individuals, the names and certain identifying details have been changed in the story.