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Fayetteville Police Try a New Approach to Drug Crimes

A stamp of heroin.

When Fayetteville launches its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program this fall, it will be the first city in the South to try a new approach to policing drug crimes.

The LEAD program keeps low-level repeat offenders out of jail by giving officers discretion to refer them to addiction treatment programs instead.

Donnie Varnell is a former State Bureau of Investigation agent who now works with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. He is collaborating with the Fayetteville Police Department to roll out the program.

“The goal... is to help that person break the cycle of addiction, use, and being arrested over and over again,” Varnell said.

Similar programs have been developed in Seattle, Santa Fe and Albany to combat the epidemic of opioid addiction. A recent survey byCastlight Health ranked Fayetteville 18th in the nation for opioid abuse.

Soon, people who commit small-scale drug crimes involving less than four grams, as well as those involved in prostitution and larceny, could be eligible for Fayetteville’s LEAD program. Instead of being arrested, they’ll be referred to treatment specialists who will evaluate their needs.

Varnell said case managers will have access to a comprehensive range of resources.

“We have found that many of the people need housing, and job placement and proper identification and food,” he said.

LEAD was first developed in Seattle in 2011. Participants in the Seattle program were 58 percent less likely to be arrested compared to those who went through the traditional criminal justice system, according to the LEAD National Support Bureau.

Varnell said this reduces the workload for police, allowing them to focus on more serious crimes.

Earlier this month, N.C. Harm Reduction hosted a pair of conferences to educate North Carolina law enforcement officials about the LEAD model.

“I really truly believe that this is going to take off across the nation in the next 18 to 24 months,” Varnell said. “I think it’s pretty cool that North Carolina is taking that lead with the program.”

Five cities across the country have already put LEAD programs in place. Four more, including Baltimore and San Francisco, are in the final stages of launching similar initiatives. Another two dozen are exploring the concept.

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