In the spring of 2022, Crystal [identifying details withheld] was at the self-checkout in her Northeast Philadelphia grocery store, having an issue paying for the food and household goods her children needed. “I knew I had the money in the account,” she insists. But the incident escalated to the point where the store contacted the police. Two officers arrived, quickly confirmed this was Crystal’s first time potentially being arrested, and then the female officer explained that they had an alternative to taking Crystal into custody.
“They helped me out — actually took me shopping. They really were a blessing,” Crystal says. The officers helped her purchase the groceries she needed and connected her with social services. Within a week, she was receiving needed assistance. “They’re really out there to help people. I was really happy and surprised.”
What Crystal encountered was Philly’s Police Assisted Diversion (PAD) pilot program, which gives cops in the field discretion to evaluate the individual and their situation, instead of arresting and booking someone for a low-level crime. PAD officers address immediate needs, connecting participants with appropriate social services with no arrest or further entanglement with the criminal justice system. PAD eliminates costs to the city, community, and individual for court, incarceration, supervision and drug testing, fines, and fees.
The program is an interdisciplinary “least harm” approach that justice reform movements propose will help dismantle a punitive criminal justice system. It falls under the wider umbrella of the century-old community policing philosophy, which, in recent years, has come to mean many things to many people. Still, at the heart of community policing is the idea of reintroducing police officers as trusted neighborhood resources — people to run for help toward, not away from.
This summer, the police department will expand PAD from North Philadelphia to the entire city.
“We’re not telling the police to not enforce; we’re not telling you not to arrest anybody,” says Kurt August, the director of the City’s Office of Criminal Justice. “The principle is that typically these are crimes committed by people struggling with complex unmet health needs, living in deep poverty and a state of desperation. What we’re doing as a city is saying, we think there’s something better that can happen for a lot of these people before they go through the next steps of the justice system.”
Bringing PAD to Philadelphia
Before launching PAD, the Office of Criminal Justice looked to other cities for guidance on implementing a successful program. Both Australia and Portugal started nationwide police diversion programs in the early 2000s, but Seattle’s LEAD, launched in 2011, is one of the earliest large-scale programs in the US. That program’s successes include increased housing and employment for participants, decreased bookings and incarcerations, and better community relations surrounding homelessness, public intoxication, and minor crime. Dozens of other cities have followed suit.
Philadelphia’s version is closest to Baltimore’s LEAD program, partly because the two cities have similar substance abuse issues. Philly’s PAD focuses on victimless crimes, where no injuries have occurred. “We’ve looked at trying to grow the scope of it to include other things, but it gets complicated when it involves property crimes because they involve a victim that needs to sign off,” says August.
Because of the unprecedented level of toxicity in the local drug supply, speed was also a priority for Philadelphia’s pilot to prevent early-onset withdrawal, among other issues. PAD tries to facilitate the diversion from the point of arrest to the handoff to social service providers in no more than 45 minutes.
“We’re not telling the police to not enforce; we’re not telling you not to arrest anybody. What we’re doing as a city is saying, we think there’s something better that can happen for a lot of these people before they go through the next steps of the justice system.” — Kurt August, director of the Office of Criminal Justice
Part of the PAD rollout included negotiating with regional managers of CVS stores and other similar businesses that experience a lot of shoplifting, starting with a letter explaining the program goals and potential benefits, including reducing the likelihood of repeat thefts.
“Most of the people involved in these low-level crimes are not aspiring criminal masterminds or part of some elaborate network, right? They’re people that have complex unmet health needs,” says August. “We’re actually better off trying to invest on the front end.” This investment may include bringing in a case manager to help purchase the $30 worth of detergent and toothpaste someone attempted to shoplift, as they refer them to social services. This approach addresses the basic needs that drive crimes of desperation — and backs up that immediate assistance with support that will reduce the likelihood of persistent reoffending.
The program initially secured grant funding in 2016. The pilot was launched in December 2017 in a single police district before expanding into all of Regional Operations Command North (ROC North). The City budget allocated $750,000 annually for PAD in 2018, which comes out of the five-year, $20 million dollar investment to tackle the opioid crisis.
Over six years, PAD has diverted thousands of people from the criminal justice system into needed services.
There were 1,388 PAD referrals in 2022, with a rearrest rate from the date of diversion of 8.5 percent — a remarkable statistic, considering most diversions involve low-level drug arrests. The most recent recidivism rate for all of Pennsylvania (defined by re-arrest or re-incarceration within three years of release) is 64.7 percent, powered primarily by individuals with substance abuse disorders and mental health conditions.
The program is still small, and is limited by resources both inside and outside the police department. There are currently eight police officers on PAD detail, allowing referrals to be processed at both ROC headquarters (North and South) for each shift the program is operating, between 7am and 11pm Monday through Friday. This summer, PAD-assigned officers will be in every division, and officers in all 21 districts will undergo training to understand how the program works. The next phase of development, says August, is to start expanding into Saturday’s day and night shifts to begin to address the time gap.
A study of the program by Penn researchers found that both officers and community members felt overall that PAD benefited them — with caveats. PAD is hampered, the study showed, by an “inadequate supply of social and health professionals working in the community,” as well as quality and trust level of service providers, housing stock, and effective programs that people can be referred to. Researchers cited one police officer noting that, “we need more… from the civilian end. Like we need boots on the ground…they need to come out and engage them more. Take us out of it a little bit more. Like we’re limited. Law enforcement in America is not set up for addiction. We don’t have the resources…I’m not a counselor. I’m not a social worker…I know like what’s going on, but I’m not a professional.”
One PAD officer’s story
The key to PAD is a direct, warm handoff from the officers to social service providers in the community. PAD Officer Helena McGinn spent 10 years in social work before joining the police force and attributes her joining PAD to, she says, “timing and fate.”
McGinn and some of her fellow academy graduates came to the 22nd District six years ago, just as officers were being selected to train on the police-assisted diversion pilot. Her background made her an ideal candidate. PAD officers must know how to identify what services someone needs and make that connection. Department buy-in, crucial for the program because this is essentially a different way of policing, would have to be earned. “I believe in rehabilitation,” McGinn states. “This was totally in my realm.”
On her assigned foot beat, she encountered people experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. Her approach was simple: Just have conversations with them. “I really had to build a lot of rapport with people. I had to get them to trust me. I had to get them to know I was genuinely interested in getting them services. And it was tough, it was really, really tough with that uniform. But you know, keep pushing and showing up every single day. And it took some time, but after them knowing me and me knowing them, they ended up trusting me.”
Other than a recent change to a “soft” uniform (pullover instead of button-up shirt, no stripes), PAD officers are outfitted the same as their colleagues. It’s how they’re able to help that’s different. They’re empowered to address someone’s most basic needs, from provisioning a courtesy ride to a family member’s house to connecting them with ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine) level of care assessments, short-term detox or inpatient treatment, and transitioning into recovery houses.
There are clear guidelines on arrest diversions: Eligible offenses are low-level, non-violent misdemeanors, including retail theft, possession or purchasing of narcotics (such as hand-to-hand street transactions), and prostitution. People with active warrants aren’t eligible for PAD, and after someone has been diverted twice, they are no longer eligible to participate.
PAD officers also have some discretion in evaluating whether an individual can be diverted. Intoxication and mental health conditions can prevent a person from being capable of completing the process, though officers may advocate for special consideration in complex cases where someone is clearly in need of treatment, and arrest and subsequent incarceration would do more harm. Officers must also consider whether someone is cooperative and safe enough to work with a civilian service provider.
“It took some time, but after them knowing me and me knowing them, they ended up trusting me.” — PAD Officer Helena McGinn
Almost 44 percent of PAD diversions are social referrals: individuals can have an encounter with a police officer unrelated to a potential arrest and express interest in receiving treatment, and that officer can contact PAD to complete the connection to services. Police chaplains, social workers, family, friends, and other representatives can refer individuals by contacting the district or an officer. Flyers distributed to the community let residents know PAD is there to help.
Another distinctive feature of the program is the continuum of care. Previous diversions can return to the district and ask to speak with a PAD officer for help connecting with another service, like a post-rehab job placement program, or peer or case management support for ongoing mental health treatment.
Veteran and outreach worker James Williams is an assistant program manager for PAD. “We have a very, very high success rate when it comes to recidivism,” says Williams. “Those that do come through the program are not getting locked up for the same offense. That’s big. So, whether it’s the seed that was planted, or they just start making better choices because of their consequences, whatever it is, is starting to work. And we are starting to see the results.”
That, Williams says, is because of the officers invested in the program. “I call them pioneers because they really are,” he says. “It hasn’t come easy. They really push the envelope. They have put a lot of things on the line to push this program in the right direction, to keep the integrity of the program and still meet the parameters that have been set by the law.”
PAD requires cooperation between agencies, building partnerships among law enforcement, and harm reduction workers aiding people most likely to become entangled with the criminal justice system. Williams points out that the police aren’t taking on a wholly new role. They’re not referring individuals to treatment or determining level of care. A lot of what PAD does is to meet people where they are. As McGinn puts it, “We’re police officers. Our genuine role is letting them know we’re here to give them an opportunity and help in any way we possibly can.”
Hearing police officers and case managers speak the same language is a paradigm shift in public safety. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Williams says. “They’ve really changed the culture. We have a lot of veteran officers; they’re now more invested in helping somebody as opposed to arresting them, and it’s a more respectful encounter with people who are dealing with substance use and homelessness. You’re a person, a human.”
The future of PAD
With a new administration coming next year, program buy-in is more important than ever. Cherelle Parker’s Philadelphia Neighborhood Safety and Community Policing Plan focuses on putting around 300 more foot-patrol and bike officers “in every neighborhood” through increased recruitment efforts. Parker’s plan calls to “introduce and expand efforts to engage with members of the community” like more training for community safety organizations and investing in alternatives to incarceration. (On the other, hand, it also includes items like enforcing youth curfews, which studies have repeatedly shown neither reduce crime nor victimization, and is noticeably absent from President Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing, a must-read for anyone concerned with repairing the institution of criminal justice in the U.S.)
With PAD expanding to every district in the city, there are gaps in funding that could enormously impact the effectiveness of services when it comes to education, peer support, and mental healthcare that need to be closed if police diversion is going to successfully keep people who need these resources out of courts and incarceration.
McGinn looks forward to the positive interactions with police she sees in the community spreading to the rest of Philadelphia. “For me, it’s just that old-school mentality of wherever you see a police officer, you can go up and ask for help,” she says. “My hope is just that the community sees that the police are trying to do their best and we are trying to help anybody that we possibly can.”
MORE ON POLICING FROM THE CITIZENROC North PAD team. Photo by the Behavioral Health Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department