Proponents of the (currently privately-funded) Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program sat down with reporters late last week to explain what the program would do with $1.5 million in city funding. Under LEAD, part of the Mayor McGinn-backed Center City Initiative, police officers hook up about 150 low-level Belltown-area criminals with services each year instead of tossing them in jail.
The groups backing LEAD (and a separate program at the city that goes by the evocative title "Multi-Disciplinary Team," which would receive another $208,000 to serve folks with violent criminal histories or people who don't have any criminal history at all ???) are understandably concerned that the council may oppose funding a program that works to reduce low-level crime downtown and get people access to supportive services simply because it's championed by Mayor Mike McGinn, whose opponent, state Sen. Ed Murray, five members of the council have endorsed.
The mayor has championed it, [which makes it] either something that reflects really well on the mayor or, if you’re an opponent of the mayor, you could say that a broken watch is right twice a day."
"This is not the mayor’s proposal, this is ours—and by 'ours,' I mean pretty much all the downtown stakeholders," said Lisa Daugaard, head of the lefty nonprofit Defender Association. "The mayor has championed it, [which makes it] either something that reflects really well on the mayor or, if you’re an opponent of the mayor, you could say that a broken watch is right twice a day."
Expanding both programs would allow the city to provide rent money, treatment, and other services to between 250 and 500 clients not just in Belltown but throughout downtown, the International District, and Pioneer Square—"about 50 percent of the people who are arrested" in those areas, Daugaard estimated.
Jon Scholes, a vice president at the Downtown Seattle Association, said the proposal was a step up from the "unproductive dialogue" that happened a few years ago about then-city council public safety committee chair Tim Burgess' own downtown-safety proposal, which foundered on an unpopular bill that would have cracked down on aggressive panhandling.
"A couple years ago, we had a pretty unproductive disagreement about the panhandling ordinance," Scholes said. "We need to end this notion that you can come to Seattle and die in our gutters, because that’s not compassionate. If not this, what? 'Nothing' is not an acceptable answer."
Although council members seemed generally enthusiastic about the program, they did have questions about the proposed new money last week (as they have in the past)—specifically, whether it has resulted in lower crime so far, and whether it would do so in the future. Proponents' response, basically, was that they don't know—but that programs like LEAD are the most effective ("evidence-based") they've seen so far to ensure that people don't commit offenses again.
"LEAD as its own program has been running for almost exactly two years and that is that time period that it would need to run in order to have a good sense of whether it's working," Daugaard said. "So we have arranged for really a top-drawer, state-of-the-art evaluation of those outcomes, which is going to be completed within the next year. ... I think everyone will be pleased by the rigor and thoroughness of that evaluation, but we can’t stand here today and say that LEAD itself has been proven effect in Belltown as a pilot program. We’re not making that claim."
Despite the lack of solid evidence of LEAD's succsess (and the success of the multidisiplinary team, with its much smaller budget) so far, council member Mike O'Brien tentatively sung the program's praises last week. "I don’t know that we want to wait to make all those investments until we have all that data," O'Brien said. "It’s a little bit like a building the airplane while you fly it kind of thing."
City council member Nick Licata struck a more cautious note, saying, "This is a significant amount of money. I believe it will be well spent, but we have to go beyond belief. … It's not just a question of metrics but how it's executed and how we can ensure the public that this is money well spent."
The mayor's proposal also includes $208,000 for a so-called Multidisciplinary Team (MDT), which would provide services to people ineligible for LEAD either because they committed violent crimes or because they didn't commit any crime in the first place. State Sen. Ed Murray, who's challenging McGinn, has also expressed his support for funding LEAD and the Center City Initiative.