Police will soon connect people to substance abuse, mental health services in Thurston County

Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim describes the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program at a Wednesday night Black Alliance of Thurston County meeting.
Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim describes the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program at a Wednesday night Black Alliance of Thurston County meeting.

People arrested in Lacey and unincorporated Thurston County could soon have access to mental health and substance abuse treatment through a pilot program.

Officials hope to have the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program running by early June, Prosecutor Jon Tunheim announced Wednesday at a meeting hosted by the Black Alliance of Thurston County. The program would allow people arrested for minor offenses, such as public intoxication, urinating in public and low-level drug offenses, to enter a treatment pipeline with intensive case management instead of being booked into jail.

Thurston County has been working on the program for about three years, but LEAD started coming together last year thanks to the Affordable Care Act, which opened doors to new funding for substance-abuse treatment, Tunheim said. The policy change prompted the formation of the Thurston-Mason Behavioral Health Organization last year.

“This isn’t just something we’re talking about doing. We’re ready to go,” Tunheim said.

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza and Lacey Police Chief Dusty Pierpoint have signed on, allowing their agencies to serve as pilots. Tunheim said LEAD is in talks with the Olympia Police Department. The overall goal is to have LEAD available countywide.

The local LEAD program is modeled after a LEAD program started in Seattle in 2011. Initially, that program was limited to the city’s Belltown neighborhood and focused on treatment instead of jail time, said Kris Nyrop of the Washington Public Defender Association. It’s a collaboration among the Washington Public Defender Association, the King County Prosecutor’s Office and the Seattle Police Department.

Nyrop explained that when someone is arrested who fits the LEAD criteria, they’re given two choices: go to jail or be referred to a case manager and enter LEAD. If they chose the LEAD option, the case manager comes to them, no matter what time it is.

The program was so successful in Seattle that city officials expanded it to all of downtown Seattle, Nyrop said.

“The case for doing it is not that it’s a radical change,” said Lisa Dugard, of the Washington Public Defenders Association. “It’s that it works.”

She said that recidivism in LEAD participants decreased by 58 percent.

In Thurston County, LEAD wouldn’t be focused just on substance abuse treatment. It would focus on mental illness, too. Snaza said that law enforcement is often the first responder in a mental health crisis, so it would help to have additional tools.

“Why can’t we be the helper that we’re expected to be anyway?” Snaza asked.

He hopes that, in addition to helping people, LEAD will cut costs to the Thurston County criminal justice system and decrease the Thurston County jail population. It costs $114 a day to house someone in the jail, he said.

“We’re counting on LEAD, and it will work in Thurston County,” Snaza said.

Tunheim said the the protocol for Thurston County’s LEAD is modeled closely after King County’s version. The last element to come online will be the mobile outreach program, scheduled for late May. The mobile outreach will be able to respond anywhere in the county and is run through the Thurston-Mason Behavioral Health Organization.

After an arrest, mobile outreach will perform the initial assessment of a potential LEAD client, funneling the person into the treatment pathway, Tunheim said. Cases will be managed by Telecare, a company contracted by the Behavioral Health Organization last year. The company manages the county’s mental health triage facility.

Tunheim’s biggest worry is that there won’t be enough capacity locally for treatment.

Some people at Wednesday’s meeting expressed concerns with Thurston County’s LEAD program. Malika Lamont, a harm reduction specialist who is active in Thurston County’s needle exchange program, asked whether Telecare was the best partner for LEAD. She also questioned the decision to focus on mental health in the local version of the program.

Tunheim said that the county had already contracted with Telecare through the Behavioral Health Organization. He admitted that he’s more familiar with the legal and criminal justice side of the program.

Regarding the mental health vs. substance abuse question, Tunheim said that the two issues often occur simultaneously.

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly