Video: Voices from the field: Alternatives to arrest work. Let me tell you why
Depriving individuals of their freedom through the criminal justice system is one of the government’s most immense and solemn powers. Law enforcement are at the forefront of exercising this power, having initial contact with individuals suspected of a crime and the general discretion of whether to arrest that individual. For years, the criminal justice agencies used “tough-on-crime” policing—with the belief that arrests and stiff sentences would deter crime—resulting in jail populations sky-rocketing. However, recidivism rates remain high, challenging the belief that tough-on-crime policies have kept communities any safer. In fact, research shows that even one night in jail could actually increase an individual’s chance of recidivism, not decrease it.
Today, more than 80 percent of the approximately 500,000 individuals in local jails at any given time are unconvicted. In an effort to reduce the negative impacts of incarceration and better uphold an individual’s right to remain innocent until proven guilty, many communities have effectively implemented alternatives to arrest. Studies show that these options not only maintain public safety, but oftentimes enhance it. Moreover, they reduce the strain on limited law enforcement, court and jail resources, saving taxpayers millions.
Alternatives to arrest can include alternative response models—such as co-responder and community responder—law enforcement led diversion, civil citations or criminal summons. To help communities better understand the benefits of these alternatives to arrest, we are going to talk to a variety of individuals in law enforcement whose department uses some version of these methods. We will discuss the importance of these programs, their benefits and any challenges.
INTERVIEW WITH CHIEF JASON LANDO, FREDERICK POLICE DEPARTMENT, FREDRICK, Md.
- Crisis Car is a mental health co-response program in which a clinician and EMT/paramedic ride along on patrol with a police officer to respond to mental health crisis calls.
- These types of programs help de-escalate situations, keeping police officers, individuals in crisis and the community safer.
- As in most public safety agencies right now, staffing has been a challenge; adjustments can be made for these temporary challenges.
- To start a similar co-responder program: stop talking about it and just do it.
[Note: minor edits were made to transcript for clarity purposes]
Lisel Petis: I’m Lisel Petis, a criminal justice senior fellow with the R Street Institute, and I am speaking with Chief Jason Lando of the Frederick Police Department in Maryland about arrest alternatives being used in his community.
Jason Lando: My name is Jason Lando. I became the Chief of Police in Frederick, Md., in March of 2021. I’m new to Maryland, still getting to learn the area, learn the people. But prior to that I spent 21 years with the Pittsburgh Bureau Police in Pittsburgh, Pa., and I retired from there in February of 2021 with my last assignment being the commander of the narcotics and vice division. Just prior to that I spent five years leading one of the precincts—or in Pittsburgh we call them zones—where there was a pretty significant crime issue and mistrust between police and the community. So I came to my new position as chief in Frederick with some ideas and some initiatives in mind that I brought with me from Pittsburgh to change that narrative and bring the police and the community closer together.
Lisel Petis: Wonderful. So you brought some ideas with you. What kind of arrest alternatives are you using with the Frederick Police Department?
Jason Lando: In full transparency, I don’t take credit for a lot of this stuff. The Frederick Police Department has been doing the right things in policing for a significant amount of time before my arrival. But there was one program that I felt really passionate about starting and that is the Crisis Car Program, and I know we’ll get into that in a few minutes. But there was another program already in place when I got to town. It’s a pilot program called LEAD, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program. One of our lieutenants, Lieutenant Corbett, is running that program right now. And then there’s the JEDI program, which is like a LEAD program for youth and for juveniles. I would say those are three of the main programs right now going on in Frederick. We’re trying to find alternatives to the traditional use of police—where we’re just going out and arresting people for crimes. Obviously, there are times we know when we have to make arrests—I just want to be clear about that—but there are also times I think where people are really struggling, they’re in a tough place and putting the handcuffs on them might not be the best solution. We have to realize that when we do that sometimes we change the trajectory of that person’s life, perhaps forever. And so, looking at alternatives in a couple of different scenarios, I think is really important.
Lisel Petis: You mentioned Crisis Car is one of the programs that you’ve helped start. Can you just dive into a little bit more about what exactly Crisis Car is and how it works?
Jason Lando: The Crisis Car program is our mental health co-response program. You’re starting to see programs like this pop up all over the country and some have been in place for quite a while. We’re very lucky in policing; we can pick up the phone and call police departments anywhere around the country and say, “Hey, we heard you’re doing this,” and they’ll gladly tell us their success stories, what’s working, what’s not working. So we have chatted with some other police departments around the country in designing our program. In Frederick, I think the one thing that’s unique is our program pairs three disciplines together. We have the Frederick Police Department—so a police officer in the car—we have an EMT or paramedic—just depending on the day and the staff—from our county fire rescue and we have a mental health clinician from Sheppard Pratt, which is one of our local providers of mental health services here in Frederick. When you look around the country, a lot of times you’ll see that sometimes the programs are mental health based, sometimes they’re fire department based, sometimes the police aren’t even in the equation. I felt really strongly that when we ran our pilot that we keep the police as part of the program for safety reasons. When you look at some of the calls we go out on, they’re really ending in one of three ways. Either the person ultimately has a warrant for their arrest or they are being violent or they’re committing a crime, so you need the police. Maybe it’s a drug overdose or turns out to be a medical emergency that we’re getting called for, in which case we have an EMT or paramedic in the car. And then more often than not—because primarily this car is being used for mental health crisis response—that person really needs to just talk to someone, they need a therapist, they need someone who can de-escalate a situation and just talk to them about their mental health needs. So we thought pairing those three disciplines together on the car would allow that team to work cohesively and collaboratively at solving those problems. We know sometimes these calls can completely vary from the way they’re dispatched, to what happens when they arrive on scene, and we know that there’s no cookie cutter model necessarily. So letting that team go out and problem solve together and figure out who is the best person to take the lead in a given situation, that’s kind of the model of the car. Right now, because of some staffing concerns, we run the car five days a week. At first we were running it four hours a day. We’ve expanded it about six or seven months ago to eight hours a day. So the car is now 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday, from 1pm until 9pm. We picked those times because after we looked at the eight hours in the day where we’re most likely to get called to a mental health emergency, and that appeared to be the best window of time. So, that’s how we selected that.
Lisel Petis: You were talking a little bit about that you’re getting these high volumes of calls during that time. Was there an issue that you saw within the community that you were trying to specifically address with this model?
Jason Lando: Yeah, I really believe that the majority of police officers every day are good, ethical, law-abiding people that want to go out and make a difference in their community. When you turn on the TV, you see some of these really nasty incidents—these ugly uses of force that play out—I think a lot of the times when you look at it, it’s not an officer with bad intent or ill intent. An officer, sometimes is placed in a situation that they’re probably not the best person to be dealing with that [situation]. A lot of these issues that we’re seeing are people that are having some sort of mental health emergency and maybe that manifests in them acting out, being violent, not obeying orders or not obeying commands. And so really, this came from a desire to keep my cops safer and keep our community safer. If we can end an encounter by having a therapist talk to somebody and de-escalate rather than an officer who has not received that same level of training in mental health emergencies, we can actually bring them a mental health professional with us to calls and we can provide the care they need. That keeps that officer from using force or keeps that officer from getting injured by having to fight with someone. That’s a win-win for everybody, that the person that we’re called to care for is safe and the officer is safe as well. That’s where the desire came from, was to end these situations in a safer way for everybody.
Lisel Petis: Those are some of the benefits. What else have you seen? What have been some of the positives coming from this program? And has public safety in fact been increased? You had indicated that was maybe a motivator, but has that actually proven to be true?
Jason Lando: I can tell you anecdotally, I have the police radio in my office and I hear that the car is being dispatched every day on calls. So they’re being used, and that’s good. The community loves this program, just knowing that it’s out there. Whenever we talk about it publicly, there’s been news stories on it. The community is so appreciative that we are being progressive and forward thinking in how we deal with these things. I mean, that right there is a big win. We talked about the community bank account, every day making deposits in that bank account or withdrawals, just having the program in place in Frederick has been a huge deposit in the community bank because I think our residents know the Frederick Police are trying, they’re thinking outside the box, they’re trying to do something differently to creatively solve problems and they appreciate that. And then the other benefit, every month we run a report just to see how the progress is going on the car. In the first year that the program was in place, we used force one time. And that was not a significant use of force. We report a lot of things that some departments don’t report; this was a very low level of force that was used in one incident that some police departments wouldn’t even consider a use of force. It was a “come along hold” where we had to pull someone into or out of a vehicle. That tells me that when that car is in operation, the team that’s working on the car is approaching things from the right frame of mind. They are de-escalating situations and they’re not resulting in using force. Conversely, when we’re sending police and mental health providers separately to calls, my concern is that you don’t have that team cohesion. You’re going to get a random officer who’s assigned to that call and a random therapist or a random provider who’s assigned to that call. They’re not arriving at the same time. So what happens if the officer is the first person to arrive. Perhaps [the clinician] could have kind of de-escalated a little bit better, but instead the officer ends up using force. Or conversely, what if the mental health provider gets there first and the individuals are violent, and there’s no officer there? Having a team arrive together, I think, has been a huge benefit in quelling those situations.
Lisel Petis: Anecdotally, you’ve definitely seen some benefits and are working to further support those with the data and statistics, is that correct?
Jason Lando: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of times we get an idea in our head and people make fun of me all the time. I say, “this is a great idea, let’s implement it.” Then a month later, “maybe that wasn’t the best idea.” So I think the constant re-evaluation is important. I can tell you the program itself is here to stay. I mean, there is a need for it in the community—we have a significant number of mental health calls—but maybe the way we run the program will change or maybe the hours of the day or the providers on the car, just based on what we’re seeing on a day to day basis out in the street. We just need to keep an open mind that just because we come up with an idea doesn’t mean that it has to be that thing forever.
Lisel Petis: You started to hit a little bit on that there have in fact been challenges and I think it’s really important for others to hear what some of those challenges are and how you’ve tried to work through them. Can you explain some of those challenges and what you’ve done to overcome them?
Jason Lando: Staffing. Staffing is an issue in probably every public safety agency in the country right now. The idea for us is to have a set team of providers on the car. So you have that team cohesion when they come to work every day. For example, “Hey, Jason and Lisel are working together today.” We know each other, we know how we operate when we get to a scene, we already know what the other person’s thinking. Because of current staffing issues, we have a grant and we are staffing our role on the car with overtime. I know the fire department is as well. That means that officers are signing up for four hour blocks at a time; five days a week, eight hours a day, we have four hour blocks. An officer will sign up for the first four hours and another officer will sign up for the next four hours. Same thing with the firefighters. We don’t know what clinician on a given day will be assigned to the car because they rotate through because they have other duties. Every shift, you could potentially have a different lineup of people working the car. I don’t want to say it has created major issues, but it has created some issues. Part of the reason why we’re doing the training is the team gets to the call and they’re like, “Okay, I don’t know how you work and I don’t know how you work, so who’s going to take lead on this today?” Or, “Hey, why are you handcuffing that person? I wouldn’t handcuff that person,” because we’ve never worked together before and maybe that officer has seen something that you didn’t see. You haven’t worked together and you’re just not used to the way the other person does things. That can create some “conflict” -–that may be too harsh of a word-–but that can create some issues and some concerns. So, the long term goal when we get up to full staffing, and we anticipate being at full staffing right around the spring of 2023, we intend on taking two police officers from patrol and assign them full time to our Special Operations Division. And those two officers will be assigned to the crisis car as the permanent officers. We are hoping that fire rescue is able to do the same. Right now, one of the other issues is the utilization of the EMT or the paramedic on the car. If they find that the EMT or paramedic isn’t being used really well enough to justify a full time position on the car, then the way the program looks might be different. And so that’s why we’re doing that constant evaluation. And then the other thing which I already touched on is team cohesion, setting really clear boundaries. When you’re on a call, if this is what you’re presented with, this is who takes the lead. You know if the person is in any way being violent and violent to the point where having a therapist try to talk to them is not working, then the police officer has to take the lead. We have to make sure our team is safe. We don’t want to have to use force, we don’t want to have to make an arrest, but we can’t compromise the safety of our civilian providers on the car. So part of the training we’re going to be doing, coming up, is talking about when you arrive at a call, what you’re presented with and that will dictate who the lead is on the car in that given scenario. I call them growing pains. When you start a new program and you bring in three different agencies and they’re all sitting in a car together every day going out answering calls, that is a new thing for policing and probably also a new thing for our two partners. Just making sure that we have clear roles and boundaries.
Lisel Petis: That’s great. So let’s say there’s some law enforcement agencies that get to watch this. They think this sounds amazing: we want to do the same, we want to implement the program. What advice would you give them to get that started?
Jason Lando: In keeping with my very A-type personality: just do it. Stop talking about it and just put something together and get that car out of the street. I know that sounds a little bit crazy, but I know of agencies—I certainly won’t name names—that have said to me when they saw some of the articles that were printed, “How did this get up and get running so quick?” I said, “I called the Fire Chief and I called our folks at Sheppard Pratt and I said ‘hey, we have a need for this. Let’s implement it. Let’s get it out on the street, for a couple hours a day and let’s start to work through it.’” I think in policing and government public safety in general, we overanalyze things to death to the point where sometimes we don’t even get a program off the ground. So I would say just reach out to your local agencies, your fire EMS provider, your mental health provider and get something together and get it off the ground. Start doing training, start analyzing the results and you can tweak the program as you go. One of the things that we found, for instance: I would recommend [not using] a marked police car and don’t have your officers in uniform. I mean, that is right off the bat. That’s one learning thing, when you pull up at the scene of a mental health emergency. The last thing that you want to do is put that person on edge by showing up in a marked police car with an officer with their external vest carrier. Some people are very intimidated by that, especially someone who’s in a mental health crisis. We use an unmarked vehicle, preferably officers that are not in uniform. One of the struggles we face right now is it’s an overtime detail and sometimes officers are pulled right out of patrol to go out on the street in the car. So sometimes they are still in uniform. But that’s one of the things you try to avoid if you can. Remember, this car is a de-escalation tool, so anything you can do to soften your approach is important. But, I think my biggest piece of advice would be: Don’t overanalyze it and just get the team out there and they will start to make a difference.
Lisel Petis: I think that’s a great statement to end on. So thank you so much for your time today, Chief. We hope this is helpful for whoever’s listening. Please do not hesitate to reach out to R Street. If you’d like to learn more about alternatives to arrest and get in touch with some of the chiefs doing amazing work like this.
Jason Lando: Thanks so much for having me.