Buoyed by an influx of state and city money, the Santa Fe police and fire departments soon hope to initiate a new version of a languishing program that steers opiate addicts away from the court system and toward the help they desperately need.
Officials hope the new program, called Thrive, will be an effective replacement for LEAD, an acronym for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.
“When we have people who are willing to participate and engage with law enforcement and providers, we have seen some successes,” police Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said.
The voluntary program is managed by the Santa Fe Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Health Office, led by Battalion Chief Andres Mercado.
Mercado, a longtime paramedic, began researching innovative models for fire department service delivery in 2014 and started the department’s Mobile Integrated Health Office (MIHO) in 2016. He said the aim is to prevent those addicted to opiates, including heroin, from being swept into an already overburdened court system for committing low-level crimes to feed their habit, perpetuating a cycle from which it’s hard to escape.
“It’s a movement from being reactive to proactive,” Mercado said. “One of the goals here is that through exploring different ways of approaching old problems, we may actually find new ways of learning about the system and improving the system.”
Police responding to a shoplifting incident or a motor vehicle burglary would assess whether the person would be an appropriate candidate for intensive outpatient care. If so, a Thrive case worker would be called to handle the case. The fire department separately refers opiate addicts to its case managers, but not under the Thrive program, which is a program solely handling police department referrals.
Thrive employs two caseworkers, a social worker and a paramedic for outreach and referrals to local service providers — including substance abuse treatment, housing, mental health services, life skills and job opportunities. The purpose is to bring a measure of stability that extends to the person’s loved ones.
LEAD has been dormant in recent months, partly because it was moving away from private funding and privately contracted caseworking.
Earlier this year, Mercado said, the Legislature approved $237,000 and the city added another $250,000 to fund Thrive for at least the next year.
LEAD also suffered from a low number of referrals because it did not have enough “buy-in” from police officers skeptical about the effectiveness of the program, despite the fact that the majority of their calls have a behavioral health component, Mercado said. Also, some potential participants were worried the name LEAD would require them to be drug informants.
“Word got around that it was a snitch program,” Mercado said.
Valdez emphasized that was not the case, saying that Thrive participants were not eligible to be informants and cannot be dealing drugs in order to enter the program.
Valdez additionally said officers were being trained on the effectiveness of the referral program. He said it was important to recognize addiction as a medical issue.
“It’s a better approach than just trying to arrest people, and just trying to put them in the court system,” Valdez said.
For now, referrals will only be able to be made during city business hours, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Mercado said. The goal is eventually to expand the program to have a Thrive case worker on call at all hours.
Mercado said there has also been discussion about increasing the program’s reach beyond treating opiate addicts, to include those suffering from other substance abuse and mental health conditions.
This story has been amended to reflect the following correction.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Fire Department Battalion Chief Andres Mercado started the LEAD program in 2016. He began researching innovative models for fire department service delivery in 2014 and started the department’s Mobile Integrated Health Office (MIHO) in 2016.
Additionally, the story incorrectly stated that the fire department would make referrals to the Thrive program. The fire department separately refers opiate addicts to its case managers, but not under the Thrive program, which is a program solely handling police department referrals.