Police shift focus with new program

Lakewood patrol car on the grass in-front of the police department.

February 2022 - In this era of changing policing, the Lakewood Police Department has been at the forefront of using new approaches for responding to calls arising from substance abuse, mental illness and extreme poverty.

The latest program the Police Department has launched is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) initiative. Started in July last year, LEAD is designed to provide resources to those committing low-level crimes to address what is causing them to commit those crimes. Unmet mental needs, addiction and homelessness can often give rise to persistent cycling in and out of the criminal justice system, and LEAD’s goal is to make the community safer while improving the quality of life for those with these underlying challenges.  

“Let’s be honest. If they have had 30 tickets for shoplifting, trespassing, drinking in public, do we really think that the 31st ticket is going to be that magical step that solves the problem?” said Lakewood Sgt. Jonathan Alesch. “We recognize that is probably not the case. That’s why the city and our chief of police recognize the importance of trying new things, not being afraid to step out and say, ‘This isn’t working. The status quo is not working. Let’s try something new.’ ”

Sgt. Alesch helps lead the department’s Community Action Team (CAT), which has been in place for several years to focus on homelessness and other community challenges. Through the LEAD program, the team collaborates with civilian case managers to work with these residents, build their trust and get them resources that address their needs. Instead of agents giving someone a ticket, they send them to a LEAD case manager. These cases are then diverted from the criminal justice system, and probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders and others collaborate in regular meetings to discuss the progress of LEAD participants.

This approach has been described as reversing the undue criminalization of people who use drugs, experience poverty or face mental illness. It’s also an effort to improve public health and equity across the community. 

“I think one of the best parts of our LEAD program is that it is built within the Community Action Team as a whole, and it’s part of the comprehensive suite of programs we’ve developed to address some of the social issues that so many in our community are asking for help in changing – both change in policing and in how the community addresses these issues,” Alesch said.

In addition to LEAD, CAT has two civilian homeless navigators who have been in place since 2020 to help residents end their living on the streets, and for several years mental health staff members from the Jefferson Center have responded with police agents to calls involving mental illness. 

The LEAD program is a partnership with Jefferson County Public Health and the Community Connections Center, a hub for connecting to existing resources to better service those in need. Staff from JCPH and Community Connection Centers who are experts in working with those using drugs or have similar issues helped develop the LEAD program. To ensure the program’s success, the LEAD National Support Bureau provided several days of in-person training to the program’s staff and Police Department patrol agents, and the bureau continues to provide support.

Not every case involving low-level crimes, however, is eligible for the LEAD program. Those who have committed a sex offense or been involved in using violence are not eligible for the program, and the victim of the crime must also agree to allow the case to be diverted from the court process.

“LEAD is a victim-centered program, so the victim has to agree to let the diversion occur,” Alesch said. “If you want the normal criminal justice route as the victim, you have that right. If you think this is an opportunity to get that person help, you can request that as well. It’s always victim first.”

Lakewood’s LEAD program is the first in Jefferson County, and it follows a national model of best practices.