HLPR 2016 Symposium Day 4: Prof. Katherine Beckett: Toward Harm Reduction Policing


Katherine Beckett, Clarence and Elissa M. (“Lee”) Schrag Faculty Fellow at the University of Washington


By Isaac Saidel-Goley


Prof. Beckett discussed some of the problematic uses of police discretion, while also arguing that there are ways to channel police discretion to promote social and racial justice. As a case study, Prof. Beckett outlined an innovative diversionary program in Seattle called the Law Enforcement Diversion Program.


To begin her talk, Prof. Beckett outlined research on the inevitability and ubiquity of police discretion in modern policing. Prof. Beckett then highlighted two examples of highly problematic applications of police discretion: 1) the war on drugs, and 2) broken windows policing.

The war on drugs was a concerted campaign, led by the federal government, to steer police discretion toward increased arrest levels for illicit drug use. This application of police discretion proved counter-productive in numerous ways; most notably the war on drugs led to dramatically racially disparate arrest levels and contributed to mass incarceration. Broken windows policing was another concerted campaign to steer police discretion, this time to crack down on minor legal infractions of all types. This use of police discretion also proved counter-productive, contributing to mass incarceration and racially disparate arrest levels, with young black men facing highly disproportionate criminal justice outcomes compared to other populations. In sum, Prof. Beckett argued that both the war on drugs and broken windows policing contributed significantly to mass incarceration and racial inequality within the criminal justice system, while largely failing to reduce crime.

With these problematic uses of police discretion in mind, Prof. Beckett introduced the purpose of her research: investigating ways to channel police discretion to promote social and racial justice. The exemplary model of police discretion on which Prof. Beckett’s research focuses is Seattle’s innovative diversionary program called the Law Enforcement Diversion Program (LEAD), which was premised on the idea that police discretion could be diverted from the war on drugs in Seattle toward a more productive and socially beneficial application of police discretion. LEAD is a pre-booking diversion program, where police are encouraged to refer minor offenders (usually drug offenders) to LEAD case managers instead of arresting and booking them. Once the minor offenders are referred to LEAD, the LEAD case managers begin intensive social intervention to help the new clients obtain access to intervention programs. LEAD has led to numerous social benefits including reduced arrest and incarceration rates among clients, reduced client recidivism, significant cost savings for the state, and increased stakeholder (e.g., police) openness to criminal justice reform. LEAD has since been successfully replicated by a number of other localities.

Prof. Beckett ended her talk by recognizing some of the structural challenges Seattle faced in establishing LEAD, as well as some of the ongoing challenges in maintaining LEAD, and argued that those challenges are not insurmountable and ultimately pale in comparison to the systemic and individual benefits of LEAD.

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