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San Francisco police chief pushes to restart program to help drug users

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, right, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, left, hold a press conference at SFPD Headquarters on April 13, 2023. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said he wants the city to reintroduce a program that allowed police to refer low-level drug offenders to social services. 

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, sought to reimagine how law enforcement interacted with drug users. It was implemented in San Francisco for a two-year trial period in 2017 but fell apart in 2019 due to distrust between officers and outreach workers.

In its two years, the program succeeded in reducing recidivism among people who use drugs, and many who worked on it said it helped bridge a divide between two camps of city workers who don’t normally agree on much. 

During consecutive San Francisco Police Commission meetings over the past two weeks in which he was questioned about the efficacy of the police department’s recent enforcement of public intoxication laws, Scott said that reinstituting the program is not currently on the table but that his department would support revisiting it.

“At least it gives us some alternatives,” Scott said. “It was very frustrating that it fell apart. [...] That whole thing got sandbagged.”

With city officials under pressure to take a harder line on open-air drug markets, the police department has recently stepped up efforts to arrest or seek medical attention for people who are acting intoxicated in public. But it has had little success in persuading such people to seek treatment.  

LEAD SF, which was modeled after a similar effort in Seattle that began in 2011, required bi-weekly meetings between the police department, the District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Public Health and nonprofit groups. 

Using a $6.9 million grant from the Board of State and Community Corrections, LEAD trained police officers in harm reduction, a nonjudgmental approach that aims to keep drug users safe and alive. A 2020 study from California State University Long Beach noted that the program—since launched in more than 50 jurisdictions around the country—showed that participants were six times less likely to be arrested for misdemeanors and three times less likely to be involved in felony cases. 

But some proponents of harm reduction have criticized the program. They say drug addiction is a public health issue and relying on law enforcement to solve the problem risks a return to the failed war-on-drugs policies of the 1990s. 

Scott acknowledged that arresting people will largely be ineffective at solving the addiction crisis.  

“Arresting people is not getting to the root causes of the problem,” Scott said at a June 14 police commission meeting. 

Scott and other city officials are under pressure to curb the city’s culture of open-air drug use. San Francisco is on track for a record-setting 800 overdose deaths this year. But some members of the police commission argued at the June 14 meeting that arresting drug users could actually increase the risk of overdoses. 

The police chief invited people to “come to the table with solutions that might help this situation.”

“If we can get people to the assistance they need out there, then that is the way to go,” Scott said.