Jason Kew, Chief Inspector at Thames Valley Police and Violence Reduction Unit lead for Drugs, Exploitation & Harm Reduction, spoke to us about their drug diversion scheme.
How did Drug Diversion come about?
The UK has the highest number of drug related deaths on record and has a third of all European drug related deaths which is an incredibly significant number. The number of drug related deaths are three times the number of people killed on the road. Clearly with the number of people using drugs more frequently throughout society is growing each year and the effects of prohibition makes people less likely to receive help readily. The role of the police is to create a non-stigmatised, non-punitive way for people to have an assessment about their drug use in order to enable them to make a healthy positive change in their life. Even if that is access to harm reduction material to use less, more safely, whilst not normalising or acquiescing use or to provide a gateway to support, that is what drug diversion is. The aim is to change drug possession into a health outcome rather than an incriminating police encounter.
How does it work?
Drug diversion is used to reduce the harm caused by the use of drugs and drug-related offences, allowing people in possession of small quantities of illegal drugs an opportunity to be offered drug diversion on the street, without the incriminating that person. This gives them an incentive to be open and get an assessment about what they are using. This trauma informed approach allows for a tailored diversion route to address their use of drugs and receive a community resolution, instead of facing prosecution.
Adult drug diversion uses a deferred summons approach, so that will require an interview using the officer’s body worn video on the street and the summons will be deferred pending successful completion of the course. At the end of the course a positive outcome will be applied; with 98% of people taking part in the course not being deferred to court. This scheme is open to everybody regardless of previous convictions. The scheme has been used for other crime types not just drug offences for instance, with sex work or knife awareness. It has unlimited opportunities, so as long as a person engages with the scheme it is open for them to continue getting support especially for those who have problematic use and are frequently found in possession of drugs, engagement is encouraged for participants to get access and reduce harm.
Progress so far?
The voluntary diversion for adults pilot found 40% of adults completed the course, which is 10% more than the national average for community resolutions. It is often found that reasons people could not attend were usually down to working schedules, for example, plumbers who work long hours not being able to attend the drug service because it closed at 5pm, so there were logistical issues. Additionally, the youth drug diversion scheme has been particularly successful, with 88% of all young people that have been diverted, positively engaging with the service. Also there is an over 80% completion rate for the entire six-week course. For young people, a community resolution is used, which does not leave a criminal footprint which means a DBS check will not identify the diversion or community resolution. This can be a trigger for that young person to make a positive change.
Challenges and Highlights?
There certainly is a resistance to change, not just from the police but also from a frontline practitioner’s perspective of seeing problematic use more frequently than anybody else throughout society. There is a balanced view out there and legitimacy from the public is needed in order to create change and also organisational justice within our own policing circles, in order to create positive change. Many police officers when they reflect on the drugs issue, realise that saying no to change is not helpful. Why would anyone want to lock up someone who takes spice and is homeless? It is not going to serve any purpose, that person needs help and support.
We have found using that by using a trauma informed approach through the system, that person stopped by the police will receive a phone assessment on that day or that day after, having that reachable, teachable moment that helps change that person’s mind-set as they are given a positive health outcome, not stigma, not judgement and not a punitive outcome. The power of choice should not be underestimated. The effect of decriminalisation and deflection through diversion is clear when a person is given a positive opportunity. There is nothing soft about preventing death, support not punish.