Seven years ago, Santa Fe became the second city in the US to allow police who would have otherwise arrested people for low-level drug offenses to divert them into treatment instead, through what is called law enforcement assisted diversion, or LEAD. An evaluation later found the program was cost-effective, and it was touted by mayors Javier Gonzales and Alan Webber.
A federal grant and state funding are now being used to establish or expand similar programs in 10 New Mexico counties.
Yet, Santa Fe’s groundbreaking program is a shadow of its former self. The involved city agencies have gone months without meeting about it, and the number of arrestees diverted has dropped by 90%, SFR has found through a series of interviews and a review of public records.
Even as the seeds cast off by Santa Fe’s program take root across the state, of over 165 criminal complaints for drug possession thus far this year in New Mexico’s most progressive city, just two arrestees were diverted.
People involved say that at the outset of the city’s program, champions among its staff and inside the police department made an otherwise difficult collaboration possible—and when those individuals departed, no one took responsibility and the partnerships deteriorated.
Policymakers and police maintain that the program can be revived—but without an adequate understanding of how it worked and why it fell apart, it’s hard to believe its trajectory will change.
In 2013, people with addictions were fueling a wave of burglaries across the city and as head of the property crime unit, it was then-Sgt. Jerome Sanchez’s job to stop them. When he asked one frequent arrestee how to keep him from stealing, the young man answered: substance use treatment.
Around the same time, the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance brought Seattle police to New Mexico to present about their LEAD program, the first of its kind in the US. The program’s goals were to stop this counterproductive churn through the criminal justice system, make treatment more accessible and prevent some future crimes.
“I heard the pitch and was immediately sold on the idea,” he tells SFR.
With $700,000 from the Open Society Foundations and a smaller amount of public funding, the city embarked on a five-year pilot. To hold the collaboration together, former state epidemiologist Shelly Moeller was hired to manage the program. Initially, just a few officers were trained in the process of engaging with eligible individuals and handing them off to a case manager employed by an outside nonprofit, although later the process was relaxed so any officer could divert.
By 2015, officers were diverting about two arrests a month, as well as making two “social referrals” of people they perceived to be at risk of future arrest. According to a subsequent evaluation by the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, a majority of people diverted were women between 18 and 35, unemployed and without permanent housing. The evaluators also found that people who were diverted racked up fewer arrests in the following six months compared to a control group, and concluded that the program saved about $1,500 per client per year, relative to their normal burden on the health and justice systems.
Patrick Gallagher, who became Santa Fe police chief during this time, was initially skeptical of the program but ultimately convinced of its value.
“It was working well when officers had faith in it and believed in it,” he says.
How it got complicated
Bridging police and prosecutors and social workers as staff and leadership changed, and asking them to respond in novel ways to arrestees with deep and stubborn problems, was never going to be easy.
“LEAD is not a set-it-and-forget-it program,” says Najja Morris, who directs a national training institute called the LEAD Bureau. “You’re constantly teaching new officers. You have to maintain those relationships.”
Santa Fe police were not required to participate in the city’s program and it never gained broad acceptance within the department. Even at its height, Moeller estimates that fewer than half of eligible arrests were diverted. Sanchez, who was promoted to captain in 2014, tried to motivate officers by keeping them up-to-date on the progress and setbacks of people they had diverted. But of around 50 officers he supervised, he estimates only five to 10 were diverting people.
He saw the program as a problem-solving approach to reducing burglaries, and felt it lost support when other parties involved in the collaboration described it as a part of larger efforts to reform the criminal justice system or decriminalize drugs.
“Things were said in meetings that really turned cops off,” Sanchez says.
Officers were more willing to do social referrals, but people diverted this way sometimes didn’t have a criminal record, and it wasn’t clear those diversions reduced drug arrests in the city.
The Drug Policy Alliance’s Emily Kaltenbach maintains that social referrals are useful—so long as other people are not being arrested and jailed for possession. LEAD isn’t meant to be just another pathway to treatment; it is meant for people who are deeply ensnared in the justice system and having trouble getting out.
“Nobody should be going to jail for possessing and using drugs in Santa Fe; they should be offered harm reduction and social supports,” Kaltenbach writes in an email to SFR.
In 2017, Sanchez retired and Chief Gallagher left the department soon after. LEAD was also nearing the end of its pilot period, and the city decided to rebrand it as THRIVE and have officers hand off diversions to the fire department’s Mobile Integrated Health Office, whose outreach teams were already connecting people they encountered with drug treatment. Moeller felt that making case management the responsibility of permanent city employees would help institutionalize it, but when private funding for her role as program manager ran out and she departed, the fire department did not replace her.
Andrés Mercado, who heads the health office, says that in hindsight this meant no one was actively holding the collaboration together. “It was everybody’s program—so it was nobody’s program.”
Nor had anyone assumed Sanchez’s role as booster within the police department. According to Chief Gallagher, “I was in the process of developing some champions, but just wasn’t able to get enough of them or enough people of sufficient rank to do that.”
Mercado observes that “there’s some cultural stuff that needs to change” within the police department. “That’s a long, hard road.”
The numbers speak for themselves. From 2015 through 2018, Santa Fe police diverted an average of 16 arrestees a year but from 2019 to 2021 that fell to just two, a decline of nearly 90%. Social referrals, formerly averaging 24 per year, also fell by almost half.
Kyra Ochoa, who was named director of the city’s new Community Health and Safety Department about a year ago, acknowledges that the numbers were disappointing.
“Early on we had some success and then it really fell off,” Ochoa says.
A task force that manages the program and ostensibly convenes quarterly last met in April.
One limitation is that of people arrested for drug possession, Santa Fe’s program currently only allows diversion of people with opiates, which is out of step with the profile of the city’s drug arrests and many people’s overlapping addictions. Police data show that of 165 arrests so far in 2021 in which drug possession was the sole charge, the majority involved methamphetamine or cocaine and fewer than a quarter involved heroin alone.
Moeller says that she now discourages LEAD programs from separating out arrests by drug. “You should just include all illicit substances, period.”
The program’s current leadership has discussed expanding eligibility beyond opiates, according to Mercado, but hasn’t acted yet.
Meanwhile, across the state
Even as Santa Fe’s diversion program lost momentum, its broader impact rippled outward. And the city’s loss was the state’s gain, as some of Santa Fe’s champions went on to shape LEAD programs elsewhere in New Mexico.
Moeller, now consulting for the state, helped secure a three-year, $6 million grant from the US Justice Department, which along with $1 million in state funding, is helping establish LEAD in 10 counties. Applying lessons she learned the hard way in the capital, Moeller structured the grant to require project management and evaluation, and she educates officers about the science of addiction to set realistic expectations about the gradual and inconstant pace of recovery. Gallagher, who is training the engaged law enforcement agencies, says that although some police departments in Taos and San Juan counties have declined to participate thus far, the programs in Gallup, Hobbs and Doña Ana County are already up and running. Santa Fe County’s program, involving the sheriff’s office, kicked off in early December.
Those most involved in the heyday of the city’s program say that reviving true arrest diversion would require commitment and ownership from the mayor and the police chief on down. The recent retirement of Chief Andrew Padilla could be an opportunity.
“It can happen for Santa Fe again, I think,” says Moeller. “They have the infrastructure in place.”
For a time after Sanchez left the department, he trained other law enforcement agencies around the country about LEAD. Now retired, he still believes in the concept, and is dismayed by what’s become of Santa Fe’s program, which he sees as a missed opportunity to prevent crime.
After reviewing the number of arrest diversions in recent years, he says, “As I look at this now, as a citizen, that angers me.”
Editor’s note: This story has been clarified with a more complete description of how the position of THRIVE program manager dropped off the city’s rolls.