ALBANY, NY - Numbers from the Erie County Health Department show the opioid epidemic in the county could claim the lives of nearly 400 people by the end of the year. Last year, there were 300 fatal overdoses.
As the county searches for ways to save lives, the Erie County District Attorney's Office has focused its attention out east, in Albany.
There, police are using a program, not only to help addicts, but also the homeless and the mentally ill. If the program is implemented here, the DA's office would require buy in from police.
"I'm interested in this program because I think it would help the residents of the City of Buffalo and Erie County," Erie County district attorney John Flynn said.
The program is called LEAD -- Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. Albany is the first city in the state to use this program, which is voluntary among police officers. Officer Ben Peterson opted in.
"It's really easy to get discouraged working patrol and seeing these people you arrest just cycle in and out of the court system and it's almost like to what end?" Peterson said, "I recognized that we're going to need something different we're going to have to try something new."
Here's how the program works: When officers who have opted into the program respond to a scene and encounter a suspect of a low-level crime, who's addicted to drugs, or homeless or has mental health issues, police can call a hotline 24/7, which connects them to a caseworker from Catholic Charities.
"We either respond to the phone call immediately or the person is given an appointment and we complete the intake at that point," said Ed Fox, Harm Reduction Manager Catholic Charities Care Coordination.
The officer decides if the suspect should be diverted into the LEAD program.
"We think that's very important because we want commitment, not compliance, from our folks," said Robert Sears, the acting police chief of the Albany Police Department.
REPORTER: What's it like going to that scene and needing to process what this person has been through?
"It's a great feeling to be able to offer them this type of help," Peterson said.
Keith Brown, the project director of Albany's LEAD program says in order for low-level offenders to get into LEAD, they have to sign a consent form.
"And then if there is a complainant involved, so if it was a business that was shoplifted from or something, they would also need to consent to the diversion," Brown said.
This has to be done within 30 days of the incident, if not, charges are filed.
REPORTER: Whether it's drug possession or petit larceny or trespassing what happens to that charge for someone who is diverted?
"If the person meets with a case manager, and completes the assessment within 30 days that charge is never filed," Brown said.
It is possible that a LEAD program participant, after 30 days, and after charges against them are not filed, could drop out of the program.
"But that's rare, most people stay engaged in the process," Brown said.
REPORTER: How do you battle the possibility of people gaming the system?
"In reality, there is very little to game," Brown said, "Trying something different for one time is really a low-risk move that has been demonstrated to work. It's not going to work for everybody, but it works for a significant portion of these people."
Since implementing the program more than a year ago, officials say seven people have dropped out of the program, but nearly 60 have remained active participants in LEAD.
REPORTER: How often are these folks checked up on by the case manager?
"It's based on need. So, some people are in contact everyday," Fox said.
Community leaders in Albany say the program is making a difference.
"It has improved relationships between the Albany Police Department and the community," said Dr. Alice Green, director for the Center of Law and Justice in Albany.
REPORTER: What would be your message as a patrolman to those police officers who are learning about the lead program for the first time?
"This is just another component that you have to use along with a lot of other programs to try to help people," Peterson said.
Albany Police say while more of their officers are using the program, some have chosen not to participate for whatever reason, sometimes personal reasons. Leaders of the program hope that in the long run, the LEAD program helps reduce costs in jails, and improves lives.
Last month, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn sent a team of prosecutors to Albany to learn about the program.
2 On Your Side's Jeff Preval sat down with Flynn.
REPORTER: What would you say to families out there who have lost a loved one about what this government is doing to make sure that it is finding new ways to address this problem?
"I can tell the families, personally here right through the TV lens right now, that I am doing everything I can about this crisis I am thinking outside the box," Flynn said.
REPORTER: What are some of the pros of the program?
"The concept of the program is to get some of these individuals the help that they need before they get into the criminal justice program in the first place," Flynn said.
He also believes the program could save money in jail costs.
REPORTER: Any negatives, any cons, any concerns?
"The negatives are that you perhaps are being too soft on individuals who deserve perhaps more punishment," Flynn said.
Flynn says caseworkers, who would help find participants services they need, would come from local non-profits, already familiar with drug treatment, housing and mental health services.
Another key factor -- Flynn needs buy in from police agencies.
REPORTER: Have you been contacting police departments and seeing if they would be interested?
"I have had some, a few informal conversations with various members of law enforcement. So, pretty much the next step for me is to start having some formal discussions with members of law enforcement," Flynn said.
He plans to start having those talks over the next few months. Flynn says some police agencies have already been receptive of the program, because police want to get a handle on the opioid crisis. And, he feels that if non-profits take on more responsibility by being in this program they should get state grants.
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