Seven years ago, Santa Fe was the second city in the United States to allow police to instead divert people who would otherwise have been arrested for minor drug offenses for treatment. An evaluation later found the program to be cost-effective and touted by Mayors Javier Gonzales and Alan Webber.
A federal grant and government funds are now being used to establish or expand similar programs in 10 New Mexico counties.
However, Santa Fe’s groundbreaking program is a shadow of its former self. The city authorities involved have not spoken about it for months, and the number of detainees diverted has fallen by 90%, SFR found through a series of interviews and a review of public records.
Even as the seeds of the Santa Fe program take root across the state, only two detainees were diverted of over 165 drug possession charges in New Mexico’s most progressive city that year.
Those involved say that at the beginning of the program, champions enabled the city to have an otherwise difficult collaboration among staff and within the police force – and when those individuals left no one took responsibility and partnerships deteriorated.
Politicians and police claim the program can be revived – but without a proper understanding of how it works and why it fell apart, it’s hard to believe that its trajectory will change.
In 2013, addicts fueled a wave of burglaries across the city, and as the head of the Property Crime Division, it was Sgt. Jerome Sanchez’s job to stop them. When asked by a person who had been arrested many times how he could protect him from theft, the young man replied: Treatment of drug use.
At about the same time, the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance brought the Seattle police to New Mexico to unveil their LEAD program, the first of its kind in the United States. The objectives of the program were to stop this counterproductive brain drain from the criminal justice system, make treatment more accessible and prevent some future crimes.
“I heard the pitch and was immediately won over by the idea,” he tells SFR.
With $ 700,000 from the Open Society Foundations and a smaller amount of public funding, the city embarked on a five-year pilot project. In order to keep the cooperation together, the former state epidemiologist Shelly Moeller was entrusted with the management of the program. Few officers were initially trained to connect with appropriate individuals and hand them over to a case manager at an outside nonprofit, although the process was later relaxed so that any officer could be distracted.
By 2015, the officers rerouted about two arrests a month and carried out two “social transfers” from people they believed could be arrested in the future. A subsequent evaluation by the New Mexico Sentencing Commission found that the majority of people diverted were women between the ages of 18 and 35 who were unemployed and had no permanent shelter. The evaluators also found that people who were diverted had fewer arrests over the next six months compared to a control group, and concluded that the program saw about 1,500 people compared to their normal burden on the health and justice system Saving US dollars per customer per year.
Patrick Gallagher, who became police chief of Santa Fe at the time, was initially skeptical of the program, but was ultimately convinced of its value.
“It worked well when the officers believed and believed in it,” he says.
How it got complicated
It would never be easy to connect police, prosecutors and social workers in the process of staff and leadership changes and ask them to respond in new ways to those arrested with deep and persistent problems.
“LEAD is not a set-it-and-forget-it program,” says Najja Morris, who runs a national training institute called the LEAD Bureau. “You keep teaching new officers. You have to cultivate these relationships. “
The Santa Fe Police Department was not required to participate in the city’s program, and it never found widespread acceptance within the department. Even at the peak, Moeller estimates that fewer than half of the permissible arrests were diverted. Sanchez, who was promoted to captain in 2014, tried to motivate officers by keeping them informed of the advances and setbacks of those distracted by them. But of about 50 officers he oversaw, he estimates that only five to ten people distracted.
He saw the program as a problem-solving approach to reducing break-ins and lost support when other collaborating parties identified it as part of a larger effort to reform the criminal justice system or decriminalize drugs.
“Things were said in meetings that really put the police off,” says Sanchez.
Officials were more willing to make social transfers, but people rerouted this way sometimes had no previous convictions, and it wasn’t clear that these reroutes reduced drug arrests in the city.
Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance claims that social referrals are useful – as long as other people are not arrested and detained for possession. LEAD is not intended to be just another path of treatment; It is intended for people who are deeply involved in the justice system and have difficulty getting out.
“No one should go to jail in Santa Fe for possession and use of drugs; they should be offered harm reduction and social support, ”wrote Kaltenbach in an email to SFR.
In 2017, Sanchez retired and Chief Gallagher left the department shortly thereafter. LEAD was also nearing the end of its pilot phase, and the city decided to rename it THRIVE and hand over the redirects to the Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Health Office, whose response teams were already linking people they encountered with drug treatments. Moeller felt that making case management accountable for permanent city workers would help institutionalize it, but the fire department eliminated the role of program director.
In retrospect, this meant that no one actively kept the collaboration together, says Andrés Mercado, who heads the health department. “It was everyone’s program – so it wasn’t anyone’s program.”
Nor had anyone taken on Sanchez’s role as a booster within the police force. According to Chief Gallagher, “I was in the process of developing some champions, but couldn’t get enough of them or enough people of sufficient rank to do so.”
Mercado notes that “some cultural things need to be changed” within the police force. “It’s a long, hard road.”
The numbers speak for themselves. From 2015 to 2018, the Santa Fe police rerouted an average of 16 arrests per year, but from 2019 to 2021 the number dropped to just two, a decrease of nearly 90%. Social recommendations, which used to be an average of 24 per year, have also been reduced by almost half.
Kyra Ochoa, who was appointed director of the city’s new municipal health and safety ministry about a year ago, admits the numbers were disappointing.
“At first we had some success and then it really fell off,” says Ochoa.
A task force that directs the program, which allegedly meets quarterly, last met in April.
One restriction is those arrested for drug possession. The Santa Fe program currently only allows the distraction of people on opiates, which is inconsistent with the profile of drug arrests in the city and the intersection of many people’s addictions. Police data show that of 165 arrests in 2021 of drug possession charges, the majority were methamphetamine or cocaine and less than a quarter were heroin alone.
Moeller says she is now advising against LEAD programs to segregate drug arrests. “You should just include all illegal substances, period.”
According to Mercado, the current leadership of the program has discussed extending eligibility beyond opiates but has not yet acted.
All over the state now
Although the Santa Fe diversion program lost momentum, its effects spread outward. And the loss of the city was the gain of the state, as some of the Santa Fe champions shaped the LEAD programs elsewhere in New Mexico.
Moeller, now advising the state, has helped secure a three-year grant of US $ 6 million from the US Department of Justice that, along with US $ 1 million in government funding, is helping build LEAD in 10 counties. Applying hard-on experiences in the capital, Moeller structured the scholarship to require project management and evaluation, and she trained officers in the science of addiction to have realistic expectations of gradual and volatile recovery . Gallagher, who trains the dedicated law enforcement agencies, says that although some police departments in Taos and San Juan counties have so far declined to participate, programs in Gallup, Hobbs and Doña Ana counties are already up and running. The Santa Fe County program, involving the sheriff’s office, began in early December.
Those most involved in the city’s prime say that reviving a real diversion from arrests would require commitment and ownership from the mayor and police chief. Chief Andrew Padilla’s recent resignation could be an opportunity.
“I think it can happen again for Santa Fe,” says Moeller. “The infrastructure is there.”
After leaving the department, Sanchez spent a period training other law enforcement agencies across the country on LEAD. Now retired, he still believes in the concept and is dismayed at what has become of Santa Fe’s program, which he sees as a missed crime prevention opportunity.
After looking at the number of arrest diversions in recent years, he says, “When I see this as a citizen, it annoys me.”