When Arrest Isn’t Best: Creating A Culture of Police-Led, Pre-Arrest Diversion


Christi Smith
Resident Senior Fellow, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties


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Across the nation, jails and prisons are primarily occupied by individuals experiencing mental health conditions, substance-related issues and housing and employment instability. The deinstitutionalization of mental health asylums in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in American jails and prisons becoming the de facto treatment facilities for the mentally ill. The overrepresentation of individuals with these issues has overwhelmed the criminal justice system for decades, which prompted the federal government and private organizations to fund the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project two decades ago. This multisystem collaboration among criminal justice, mental health and policy professions sought several outcomes:

Define the measures that state legislators, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections administrators, community corrections officials, and victim advocates, mental health advocates, consumers, state mental health directors, and community-based providers agree will improve the response to people with mental illness who are in contact (or at high risk of involvement) with the criminal justice system.

Despite this interagency effort and its resulting 2002 report, the problem persists. The consensus is that jails and prisons are a costly, ineffective intervention that may exacerbate negative social conditions. Available evidence indicates that police-led deflection, which empowers police officers to use their discretion to refer individuals to the appropriate rehabilitative and social service systems instead of arrest, is a less expensive, more effective intervention for nonviolent people whose alleged law violations stem primarily from social service issues. Diversion is also supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and is currently in use at approximately 850 sites across the country.

Police leaders attempting to incorporate data-driven strategies and best practices into their departments are likely to encounter pushback from the rank and file because deflection from the criminal justice system tends to be inconsistent with traditional recruitment messaging, training approaches and police practices. Police culture, often characterized by an “us versus them” mentality, skepticism and distrust of outsiders, is difficult, though not impossible, to change. In order for law enforcement officers and agencies to move toward deflection and away from the historic reliance on arrest for law violations stemming from social-service issues, leadership must commit to the new model. For this effort to be successful, the efficacy and value of the approach must be woven into daily police practices; officers have to be trained differently and collaborative partnerships with the appropriate community-based resources need to be established. In addition, deflection can only work to the degree that robust resources are available for diversion in lieu of arrest and incarceration.

In this paper, we present the typical characteristics of police cultures, explain the concept of deflection and articulate how law enforcement leaders can cultivate organizational cultures that support police-led, pre-arrest diversion.

Image Credit: Good luck images

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