Law enforcement officers know the routine well. They encounter someone who has a drug addiction or a mental health problem. Sometimes they stop the person for a low-level offense, such as drug possession, petty theft, or vagrancy.
Sometimes this might mean arrest, but often it means not being able to do anything.
If an arrest is made and the person is prosecuted, then very often, he or she will be arrested again and the cycle continues.
Confronted with people clearly in need of treatment and social services, law enforcement officers need a way to respond, because they know they’ll see them again. Confronted with violations of the law, officers cannot simply ignore what’s happening.
But continually arresting individuals for low-level offenses only exacerbates problems. As officers have said for decades, “we cannot arrest our way out of social problems.”
What if officers had a third option?
Increasingly, in jurisdictions across the country, they do.
They do in Tallahassee, Florida. In Gloucester, Massachusetts. In Lucas County, Ohio; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Seattle, Washington. These are some of the more than 250—and counting—jurisdictions across the United States that are part of rapidly emerging criminal justice efforts that collectively are called “deflection.”
Deflection is a term coined in 2014 to represent a broad range of alternatives that take place as part of law enforcement’s decision-making before an arrest is made. Existing deflection initiatives may include pre-arrest or pre-booking diversion, law enforcement diversion, and police-assisted diversion.
Deflection involves a different approach than prosecutorial or court-based diversion, where a person already faces criminal charges and is subsequently moved out of the system. It is defined as moving a person away from the justice system and toward community behavioral health and social services without ever being arrested and processed into the criminal justice system.
Deflection is a public health approach to better public safety.
Earlier this month, the Center for Health and Justice at the Chicago-based nonprofit called Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) and the Civil Citation Network co-convened the first-ever National Deflection Summit in Alexandria, VA.
The summit brought together 45 leaders representing law enforcement, behavioral health, research, and public policy partners. Among the participants were “brand name” deflection programs, including Adult Civil Citation, the Angel and Arlington models (part of the PAARI network, the largest number of deflection sites in the country), LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), and STEER (Stop, Triage, Engage, Educate, and Rehabilitate).
The summit involved an exchange of experience, insights and thoughts about deflection, including how deflection can be used in confronting the opioid crisis. At the conclusion of the summit, it was decided to move forward together—law enforcement, treatment, researchers and partners—to provide national vision, leadership, voice and action regarding deflection.
Accountability Without Arrest
Drug use and mental health issues are the major drivers of criminal justice involvement.
Deflection identifies and treats these underlying issues as a health issue first, and public safety event only when they present a real risk to others’ well-being. Through this approach, encounters with law enforcement involve screening to determine who may be deflected to services before an arrest is made and without locking people up.
This real-time sorting is done by officers and behavioral health experts based on the person’s own desire to receive help, behavioral triage, or if criminal charges could be brought, it might involve their risk to re-offend and identified treatment needs. If deflected, there are no criminal charges filed and many deflection initiatives do not require criminal charges even be present in the first place.
Early deflection programs show promising results. For those communities that have practiced pre-arrest diversion to treatment for several years, the rearrest rates for those receiving behavioral intervention services have significantly decreased.
Beyond these early initiatives, there is now a sizable expansion of programs that connect law enforcement to community-based treatment, and that paradigm shift can transform the front door of the justice system. When deflection is scaled using universal screening, referral, and intervention/treatment, the numbers of individuals entering the justice system should drop —assuming the availability of sufficient behavioral health services in the community.
Through expanded use of deflection, law enforcement could become the largest referral source to behavioral health and social services in U.S. criminal justice history.
Deflection makes every law enforcement officer a potential pathway to behavioral intervention services, drug treatment, mental health treatment, and social services when called for. Based on the street-level experiences of police officers who see the same drug users and people with mental illness daily on their beats, and know an arrest will do absolutely nothing to solve the situation, deflection adds to the justice system something new.
A screen door.
By reshaping the American criminal justice system so that it holds only those deemed a danger to society, we will achieve a system that is more nimble, agile, and able to focus on addressing offenses that present a real risk to public safety.
This new type of American justice will be able to systematically focus its full attention, resources and efforts on a smaller number of the most dangerous criminals, most urgent public safety challenges, and most intransigent crime issues, while also providing more support for victims of crime.
Perhaps one of the most timely, though not initially obvious, outcomes is improved police/community relations.
Surveys of officers often show that one of the reasons they joined the profession was to help people. Deflection gives law enforcement departments the opportunity to provide and train officers to use an effective alternative to arrest that has a positive outcome.
And the community will see law enforcement repeatedly doing much more than arresting, by truly understanding what residents and their loved ones may need: A place to stay, treatment, or a real shot at a job.
Jac Charlier, a national expert on police deflection and criminal justice systems-change initiatives, is National Director for Justice Initiatives at the Center for Health and Justice at TASC. He welcomes comments from readers.