Philly police are being trained to connect people in addiction to treatment, instead of arresting them

Philadelphia officials on Friday announced the official launch of a diversion program that would allow police officers to connect people with addiction to social services instead of arresting them for low-level crimes.

The Police-Assisted Diversion program has been in operation since December in the 22nd District. It trains officers to offer treatment and other services to people with addiction who would otherwise be arrested on charges like drug possession, purchasing, and prostitution.

Mayor Kenney’s budget has set aside $750,000 to expand the program to the East Division, where the opioid crisis is most acute. The program is also set to expand to the 39th District, which borders the 22nd.

“Giving police that kind of direction — and, to some degree, discretion — is powerful. It is life-changing. Incarceration creates another set of calamities in [a person with addiction’s] life.” said Councilman Curtis Jones, whose district includes the 39th. He said he was excited to see the program expand into his district.

The program is modeled on a similar initiative in Baltimore. The pilot program in the 22nd District is funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation as part of the city’s ongoing efforts to reduce mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system. The city is partnering with a local recovery organization, the Philadelphia Recovery Community Center, designed to connect participants with treatment options.

Capt. Francis Healy, Police Commissioner Richard Ross’s legal adviser, said the program is designed to be flexible and open to community input. Officials are considering expanding the program’s eligibility to get as many people into treatment as possible. Eligible participants are offered two chances to partake in the program; after that, a third offense will be prosecuted normally.

In North Philadelphia’s 22nd District, which has long dealt with drug use, violence, and mass incarceration, early returns on the program seem promising: of the 27 people who’ve been offered services through the program since December, 26 have accepted, officials said.

“The officers we’ve trained are really taking to this,” Ross said at a news conference Friday.

Those facing drug dealing charges are not eligible. City officials said there are other diversion programs in the city courts for low-level dealers.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said programs like PAD can improve community relationships and keep police officers, whose mere presence is a more effective crime deterrent, on the streets instead of testifying in court over low-level crimes, he said.