Here’s the law enforcement angle story about the “Ithaca Plan,” the drug policy rolled out by Mayor Svante Myrick in late February 2016. This story ran as part of our March 2 cover package, a week after the plan’s official release. Image is that week’s cover illustration, representing the “four-pillar” plan, by Marshall Hopkins. The sheriff’s quotes were contributed by my colleague Jaime Cone, who also did a fantastic interview for the issue with the fantastically named Herebeorht Howland-Bolton. My portion, with IPD Chief Barber, was completed in-person at Island Fitness, a gleaming palace of ellipticals and weights on the Ithaca waterfront; the chief saw me walking outside along the Inlet while working out and he gave me a call. We’d been playing phone tag, and he was leaving for vacation the next day. Score one more in favor of aimless walks.
The supervised injection facility for heroin users proposed as part of Ithaca’s new municipal drug policy garnered lots of media attention, but not much in the way of praise from local law enforcement leaders.
Tompkins County Sheriff Kenneth Lansing said his department was not consulted in the development of the drug plan.
“We all know that people that are doing things they shouldn’t be doing are paranoid, and I’m just not sure how safe they’re going to feel going to a facility that’s going to allow them to do this,” Lansing said about the injection facility. “There are hurdles with the legality to look at. Nothing against the mayor; I think he’s doing a hell of a job, no doubt about it, and the plan has some great ideas. I just can’t accept [the injection facility], and I can’t support it.”
Ithaca police Chief John Barber said that as “an officer of the law, I have to uphold the law.”
“I applaud Mayor Myrick for coming up with a plan that’s not business as usual,” Barber said. “I don’t agree with all aspects, but [the plan] could do a lot of good and ultimately save lives.”
Even if the injection facility comes to be at all, it’s certainly not happening immediately. The facility does have the backing of Gwen Wilkinson, the Tompkins County district attorney, but as Myrick said at the Feb. 24 press conference the city has “no interest putting time and resources into something that will be shut down a couple days later.” Getting the power to open such a facility will likely take a legal change or at least the governor’s support, the mayor said.
One major recommendation in the “Ithaca Plan” does not face any legal hurdles: starting a“law enforcement assisted diversion” (LEAD) program. The LEAD concept was pioneered in Seattle in 2011.
The “diversion” in LEAD means that police can use their discretion to “reroute people into the intake process, rather than court,” Barber said. One of the findings in the Ithaca Plan is that drug courts “are not a sufficient solution” because of the strict requirements like total abstinence from substances.
The gist of the LEAD idea is to get people struggling with addiction some help, rather than adding to their complications by further entangling them in the criminal justice system or taking them back to the emergency room for one more night that doesn’t solve any of their underlying problems.
“We can’t, and neither can the hospitals, take these frequent fliers—the people who are constantly taking up the professional facilities,” Lansing said. “The hospital doesn’t have the time or the staff to deal with that, and other than putting them in a cell by themselves there’s not much that we at the jail can do. It’s a very difficult thing, withdrawal.”
In July 2015 Albany became the first New York city to approve the concept, and it has since received at least one grant of $70,000 from a private foundation to hire a staffer.
The memorandum of understanding passed by Albany’s Common Council to start their LEAD program calls for a protocol-making committee made up of representatives from law enforcement and relevant county and city departments, like mental health. Non-profit service providers and the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City nonprofit that played a large role in writing the Ithaca Plan, serve at will on the committee in an advisory role.
In July 2015 Barber attended meetings on the LEAD concept hosted by the White House. He said at the Feb. 24 press conference that he came back “renewed” after seeing how a plan could be “put together for a specific person, and then it’s working.”
Barber couldn’t provide numbers offhand, but said that people with drug problems are responsible for well over half of property crimes in Ithaca.
“People who are addicted are stealing to support their habit,” Barber said. “There are a small number of people in the community who are in and out on a regular basis, and the way we approach it now is not working.”
“Police officers are in the field every day building a rapport with people,” Barber continued. “[LEAD] is really another form of community policing.” •