WASHINGTON (Sept. 28, 2022) –– A new report published today by Dr. Christi Smith,
Resident Senior Fellow for the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Program at the R Street
Institute, examines how law enforcement leaders can cultivate organizational cultures that
encourage the use of police-led, pre-arrest diversion to avoid unnecessary arrests.

Over the past few years, calls to “defund the police” have increased, most notably following highly publicized incidents involving police and individuals who are in crisis. Many of these stories involve social service or public health issues and, in response, police are often called upon to act as social workers. Indeed, an estimated 20 percent of police calls are for acute mental health or substance use crisis situations, which law enforcement are only minimally trained to handle. This is an untenable arrangement for police officers and the community alike, and it is best addressed at the local and community levels.

Police-led deflection is the practice of law enforcement using their judgment to refer individuals to rehabilitative and community-based resources, as opposed to arresting them. It is a less expensive, more effective intervention for nonviolent people whose alleged offenses stem primarily from public health and social service issues. Several conservative jurisdictions have widely adopted this strategy and it is supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police as an evidence-based intervention.

In practice, police-led deflection tends to be inconsistent with traditional recruitment messaging, training, and law enforcement practices––leading to some departments finding difficulty in implementing programs. Therefore, it is critical to change organizational culture and require law enforcement leaders to be deliberate and persistent in setting new standards of behavior that prioritize deflection and rehabilitation over arrest and incarceration for non-violent individuals who would be better served by community-based resources.

Dr. Smith adds, “[a]mid staffing shortages, court backlogs and the need to prioritize police resources for more serious and violent crime, more jurisdictions are using police deflection. Their efforts are reducing recidivism by matching individuals to the appropriate services.”

She concludes, “[e]mpowering police officers to use their discretion to refer individuals to the services they need, rather than arresting them, is a more effective intervention. This approach helps repair police-community relationships, saves valuable tax-payer dollars and improves the quality of life for the individual in crisis.”

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