Long burdened by one of the nation’s worst heroin problems, Baltimore is joining a small but growing number of cities where police can divert low-level drug offenders to treatment, rather than take them to jail. The move toward a diversion program—before an offender is charged—signals a shift away from a punishment-centered response to illegal drug use, amid a growing view that the opioid crisis requires a public-health approach, the Wall Street Journal reports. Baltimore is the sixth city to adopt the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion approach since Seattle in 2011.
In Baltimore, where police-community relations remain tense after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody, the program is seen as one way to improve how people in parts of the city perceive the police. “You feel defeated as a police officer that wants to help that person when you keep rearresting them,” said Ganesha Martin, external affairs chief of the Baltimore Police Department. “And they don’t get the services they need when they’re incarcerated.” Widespread abuse of opioids is worsening, fueled by the spread of fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller with up to 50 times the potency of heroin. The rising number of overdoses is driving law enforcement authorities to try new tactics. “We are not going to arrest ourselves out of this problem,” said Timothy Sini, police commissioner of Suffolk County, N.Y., who will roll out a diversion program in the next month. The programs also have drawn criticism from some law-enforcement officials and prosecutors, whose say people who are spared arrest and prosecution could commit serious crimes.