Burien’s LEAD Program Transforms Lives and Improves Public Safety

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program provides community-based care for people who commit law violations related to behavioral health issues or extreme poverty, serving as an alternative to punitive enforcement-based responses.

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In 2020, state lawmakers overhauled the state’s approach to provide treatment options to people arrested for drug possession. In other words, arrests are off the table and law enforcement must refer people to a program to help people find treatment. While many jurisdictions across the state are working hard to find that program, Burien’s has been in place since 2019.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program provides community-based care for people who commit law violations related to behavioral health issues or extreme poverty, serving as an alternative to punitive enforcement-based responses. The LEAD program operates in over 60 communities across the country, from large cities to small rural communities, as well as a few jurisdictions internationally.

The LEAD model prioritizes involvement across the community. Two times each month, local police, service providers, and prosecutors gather to look at a list of clients to provide updates and plan for ways to engage the individual that reduce law violations and involvement with the criminal legal system. When a person is referred into the program, this group discusses whether they are eligible.

Additionally, a policy group including the groups above as well as city council members, city staff, faith leaders, business owners, and community volunteers come together quarterly to steer the program and set policy that will meet the needs of the community.

Coordinated community response

LEAD is part of a coordinated community response to behavioral health in Burien. Evergreen Treatment Services’ REACH program is the service provider, helping people navigate the criminal legal system, find mental health and drug use disorder treatment, secure housing and employment, or find other services they need to move forward in their lives.

Sean Blackwell is the project manager for LEAD in East and Southwest Precincts. He previously worked as a mental health professional working with individuals with significant mental health challenges in Burien’s LEAD program.

“Burien is a great community where the high level of coordination between law enforcement and LEAD has improved treatment outcomes for some of the most vulnerable folks in the community,” said Blackwell.

Prior to working for LEAD, Blackwell worked as a mental health professional in a county jail.

“I saw firsthand how the system responded to individuals who entered the jail with serious mental illnesses or substance use disorders. Confinement can significantly exacerbate their mental illness and their desire to use substances to avoid the traumas and stressors related to incarceration.”

In many county jails, it can take days or even weeks before a person is able to see a medical professional who can help them address symptoms they’re experiencing–even in cases where a person is suicidal or whose mental health condition is severely deteriorating.

“While arrest and incarceration may temporarily remove a person from the community, giving the appearance the problem has been resolved, an abundance of evidence suggests that locking people up with mental illness actually exacerbates the problem, making it more difficult for that individual to secure gainful employment and housing in the future.”

During a presentation on Burien’s LEAD program to the Burien City Council, Burien Police Chief Ted Boe detailed the cost of cycling people in crisis through the legal system. Highlighting a case study on “Jane Doe”, he showed that since 2014, she had been booked 25 times, served 43 days in King County Jail and 167 days at SCORE, and was the subject of 32 police incident reports in Burien. The public cost of those interactions was $43,000. Total costs also include emergency medical treatment and other administrative expenses. Simply arresting and jailing “Jane Doe” wasn’t working.

Diversion programs like LEAD support the whole person and more effectively address the root causes of crimes of poverty.

“Many people use alcohol and drugs as a means of self-medication and avoidance,” said Blackwell. “The treatment approach provided through LEAD, helping them sustainably connect with programs that enable them to stabilize and get healthy, is objectively more effective.”

LEAD established criteria in partnership with local police, prosecuting attorneys and service providers to determine who is eligible for participation in the program.

“People with privilege have always had the ability to divert crimes,” said Aaron Burkhalter, project manager of Burien’s LEAD program. “People who have legal representation could argue to a prosecutor to get a diverted sentence, but that hasn’t always been the case for people with behavioral health conditions.”

Since the beginning of the program, service providers have moved 35 people into more stable housing despite the extremely difficult housing landscape during the pandemic. There remain few housing options in this region and qualifying for supportive housing can take time.

Two people talking in front of fireplace.
Left to right: Aaron Burkhalter, Burien LEAD project manager, and Leanne Rhys-Jones, LEAD program supervisor, work together to manage the program. Credit: City of Burien.

The program has helped people access services to address family issues, finances, housing, legal issues, mental health, physical health, and substance use. On average, each client has 63 encounters with REACH behavioral health service providers totaling 42 hours of service, with Burien’s LEAD team having provided more than 3,000 hours of service.

“LEAD’s success is often invisible to the larger community,” said Burkhalter. “Clients who are no longer creating challenges are not seen anymore, but their impact has been removed.”

Pandemic adds pressure to individuals in crisis

The pandemic caused a ripple effect for the community members that LEAD serves.

Community members experiencing homelessness no longer had public places, like the library, to go. Organizations and government services that would normally be open had to move to remote service or shut down completely.

Person at reception desk.
Anna Stagg, LEAD Milieu Case Manager, welcomes clients to the Burien LEAD office. Credit: City of Burien.

Despite this, Burien’s LEAD program continued to operate during the pandemic, taking in referrals from law enforcement and even community members, connecting people who are having an impact on community safety while they are themselves, in need of support. While many programs and public amenities were reduced, Burien’s LEAD program continued.

“Our providers, police, and prosecutors meet twice a month, and we never missed a meeting to talk and support clients during the entire pandemic,” Aaron Burkhalter said.

In addition, the Public Defender Association stood up a parallel program called Co-LEAD to supplement the increased need for services. The program centered on working with hotels to offer temporary lodging with 24-hour comprehensive services.

Helping individuals experiencing homelessness get shelter and stabilize their lives has shown a lot of promise and continues to be studied as an important piece of the puzzle for public safety.

New LEAD office helps lower barriers for connections to services

In 2019, the LEAD team secured physical office space in Burien. The new space has offices for case managers for Burien, White Center, and West Seattle’s LEAD programs. Sofas and chairs next to a fireplace create a welcoming environment, giving the clients a more comfortable space to wait for appointments, charge their phones, or connect with service providers.

The new space offers room for two clients at a time and is one of the only places other than public libraries and Transform Burien where people experiencing homelessness can come inside during the day.

“The space is designed to help lower barriers to our clients needing services,” said Leanne Rhys-Jones, LEAD program supervisor.

LEAD project managers have been reaching out to businesses and want to continue to talk about LEAD and, most importantly, hear what business owners and community members need to feel safe in the community.

“These partnerships are key,” said Burkhalter. “We can do our work in the community, but if it’s invisible and unfelt by members of our community, then we haven’t done our complete job.”

Emily Inlow-Hood
Communications & Public Engagement Manager at | More posts
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