Ridgeland Police Chief John Neal, Angela Mallette, Sgt. Terry Rogers, and City Prosecutor Boty McDonald
Ridgeland Police Chief John Neal, Angela Mallette, Sgt. Terry Rogers, and City Prosecutor Boty McDonald
Ridgeland Police are partnering with an addiction and mental health non-profit to give people in a bad spot a path to improve their lives and avoid serious legal penalties.

Angela Mallette, executive director of the Mississippi Harm Reduction initiative, said that it has been a year-long process working closely with police officials, including Chief John Neal, to bring a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to Ridgeland, the first of its kind in the state. 

“Chief Neal has been doing a wonderful job and has been forward-thinking in finding ways to offer options to help his officers and the citizens of Ridgeland. This program will give officers another tool in their belt,” Mallette said. ‘My hope is that we will develop something that is successful and offers a blueprint to be implemented by other agencies throughout the state.”

Mallette said that RPD and her initiative want to improve public safety and public order in their community by reducing future criminal behavior and recidivism related to mental illness, addiction, chronic homelessness, trauma, poverty and other public health issues. Developing relationships with mental health professionals provide officers with another resource to utilize to improve the outcomes of their encounters with people in the community. 

The program will give officers the discretion to defer arrestable offenders who appear to have mental health or addiction issues and are not an immediate threat. Offenders are given Mallette’s card and have 72 hours to contact her. If they do, the charges are dropped and they have the ability to receive help.

“It takes the people who are not a threat out of the hands of the police and gives us the opportunity to give them the help they need,” Mallette said. “Everyone has different needs.”

The program uses no taxpayer funds and requires no additional paperwork or equipment for officers. MHRI is funded by a combination of grants and philanthropic donations.

The program started last week. Mallette and RPD have already had one individual diverted into a detox and recovery program. As of Wednesday morning, the majority of RPD officers had been trained in the program. Officials say that currently, the program is only available to Ridgeland residents, though Neal has said he is open to expanding as things move forward.

City Prosecutor Boty McDonald said that they hope to address underlying issues that can stop people in a bad place from becoming serious dangers to themselves and others.

“In a lot of ways this is a Government 101 course,” McDonald said. “We see a lot of people who do not have a tag or a license simply because they do not know how to get them or where to go.”

Neal said he hopes it will give some the opportunity to own their mistakes and put in the “sweat equity” to improve their lives.

“Everybody has been in a bad spot where they felt beat down and helpless,” Neal said. “I see this as an opportunity for people to take ownership of their lives and what they have done and move beyond what is holding them back.”

In early-2019, Mississippi Harm Reduction Initiative began the pilot initiative with the RPD to develop the pre-arrest, pre-booking diversion program. LEAD was developed in Seattle about a decade ago and similar programs have been implemented successfully in Seattle, Santa Fe, and Albany.

In January 2020, the Ridgeland LEAD team, which includes Neal, Mallette, and McDonald, was selected to participate in the first National LEAD Learning Conference in Seattle as part of a technical assistance grant for diversion programs. The team also includes Sgt. Terry Rogers and Sgt. Sara Ladner. The City of Ridgeland joined in a multi-agency effort to develop LEAD eligibility, protocol, and policy.

“This is not a franchise,” McDonald said. “This is a framework custom fit for our situation. It is about accountability. It is what ‘I will do.’”

Mallette currently has four people who work with her. At the moment she is handling all diversions but hopes to bring on a full-time certified peer support specialist, a certification issued by the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, to people who have experience with addiction. Mallette herself is in long-term recovery.

“I think life experience is invaluable,” Mallette said. “We hope to get people in front of mental health professionals but with that initial interaction we don’t need someone who speaks clinical. I want someone who speaks street.”

Mallette hopes to continue to expand the opportunities she can offer including volunteer and job training opportunities.