The city of Long Beach has released a new tool for the police department to help connect at-risk individuals with resources to keep them from becoming unnecessarily involved within the criminal justice system.
July 25, 2023 •
Kristy Hutchings, Grunion Gazette
(TNS) — The Long Beach Police Department has a new resource at its disposal as part of ongoing efforts to help divert at-risk folks from becoming unnecessarily entangled within the criminal justice system.
Instead, the new smartphone app, dubbed “Guides,” is intended to connect those people to much-needed housing, mental health and substance-use services.
Guides is another tool for Long Beach police officers, who can download the app onto their LBPD-issued iPhones, as part of city’s Law Enforcement Assistance Diversion program, otherwise known as LEAD. Guides has been available since January, but City Prosecutor Doug Haubert — whose office helped launch both the app and LEAD — is expected to formally announce the tool this week.
Both the app and LEAD, though, go back several years, and stem from efforts to give officers to necessary tools to deal with low-level offenders who may benefit more from social services than a criminal record — such as those who are homeless, or have mental health or substance-use issues.
“We call on our officers to do a lot,” Haubert said in a recent interview, “but we don’t give them the resources they need.”
Haubert helped launch the LEAD pilot program in 2017 with funding from the Board of State and Community Corrections, and in partnership with Los Angeles County Office of Diversion and Reentry.
That program, which operated only in North Long Beach during its initial three-year stint, allowed law enforcement officers to connect qualifying people, including those who committed low-level criminal offenses, to social services instead of charging them with misdemeanors or putting them in jail. It also offered help to people who were homeless, or had mental health and substance-use concerns.
Funding for the LEAD pilot ran out in 2020, but during its three-year run, the program helped about 300 people avoid extensive trouble with law enforcement, according to Haubert’s office.
One of the key lessons learned from the LEAD pilot, Haubert said in a Thursday, July 20, interview, was that law enforcement agencies needed a tool that would allow them to share information with each other, as well as local nonprofits and other services providers in the area that could help them get people into services — or reconnect them to services, if they’d already been enrolled.
“The average patrol officer is trained to answer calls, Haubert said, “not to deal with somebody who is mentally ill, addicted to drugs or needs a place to stay.”
Nearly half of LBPD service calls relate to homelessness, he added.
The Guides app essentially came out of the initial LEAD pilot.
Former Long Beach police officer Chris Zamora, who’d been heavily involved in the pilot version of the LEAD program, brought to Haubert the idea of creating a simple, streamlined iPhone app that could give officers real-time information about available resources and how to access them.
“The idea for the GUIDES app came from (Zamora),” Haubert said. “It was his passion and his inspiration that gave life to this project.”
About a year before the Lead program’s initial run ended in 2019, Haubert announced that his office had received a $360,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
That money gave the city prosecutor’s office the money it needed to bring Zamora’s initial idea to life. Shortly after, Haubert’s office contracted with Long Beach company Laserfiche to develop the app. The company signed on right away, according to CEO Chris Wacker, because of its connection to the city.
“We have our headquarters in North Long Beach, so we are personally affected by it,” Wacker said in a Friday interview. “It’s a highly worthwhile project (which) provides real actionable information, and connects the homeless with people who are trained to provide the resources they need.”
But developing the app hit a few bumps along the road.
Shortly after work began on the project in 2019, for example, the coronavirus pandemic hit — and simultaneously, LBPD had to deal with a severe staffing crisis, which is still a problem today. The funding for the LEAD pilot program also ended.
The app development team, though, persisted. By late 2021, an early version of the app was complete.
Just before that, though, Zamora — the LBPD officer who’d crafted the idea originally — died. It was an unexpected and significant loss for the community.
“We were ready to show it to him,” Haubert said, “and we got the news.”
But again, work on the project continued — with Zamora’s original intentions for it in mind.
In April 2022, Haubert’s office received another $900,000 grant from the DOJ to relaunch LEAD — and expand it citywide. The money will keep the program running for three years.
That allowed the city to once again to pair Guides with the LEAD program, which will run until at least 2025.
The GUIDES app rolled out in January after Laserfiche made changes based on LBPD feedback during testing and the city was able to hammer out other issues.
“His spirit has become a part of this program,” Haubert said about Zamora. “We could not have done this without the great support and involvement of LBPD. They showed great compassion by embracing this project.”
Officers aren’t required to use Guides, Haubert said, but it’s available as an alternative or simultaneous action alongside traditional law enforcement methods, such as issuing citations.
The app, as Zamora intended, is simple: It can be downloaded onto LBPD-issued iPhones, and only has three buttons on its homepage, which officers can use to navigate the services they need to know more about.
When officers encounter someone, they can search through a list of about 347 people to see if they’ve already been enrolled in services and have a case manager. That helps officers reconnect people to existing social services instead of having to redo the enrollment process, which can be tedious and lengthy.
There’s also a “location search,” feature on the app, which boasts real-time information about shelters and other service providers in the area, including the population of people they serve, the services they provide, their hours of operation, and their availability. It also creates a QR code officers can share with folks to give them easy access to that information.
And finally, officers can refer people to services through the app. It’s a simple form, and only requires basic information, such as a name and birth date. That information gets sent to Gigi Zanganeh, a social worker housed within the city prosecutor’s office, who then liaises with the Long Beach health department, nonprofits and other providers to get the person the help they need.
“When I get those referrals, I’ll usually do a follow up call with the officers (because) sometimes they might need a little bit more background information, or if I do already know enough about the client but I want to make sure there’s a warm handoff,” Zanganeh said in a Friday interview. “I’ll facilitate that between the officer and the person from the nonprofit or whichever resource it is, just to make sure they can do that introduction and make the connection out in the field.”
Zanganeh, who’s been with the office since 2019, also coordinates Long Beach’s homeless court program, which is another effort to help certain folks avoice incarceration.
“It’s so hard to get people connected to help and unfortunately, a lot of times when people are experiencing homelessness or mental health, they do end up interacting a lot with law enforcement,” Zanganeh said, “and so if law enforcement has the tools to be able to help that person, then long-term, that’s going to help them be able to get off the streets and get the treatment they need to be able to reduce those interactions with law enforcement.
Because Guides has a database with information about folks already enrolled in programs, it helps avoid overlap between services providers.
“A lot of times when somebody does get referred through the app, we’ll find out this person was actually connected to a case manager or to other services, maybe a couple years ago, and they just kind of disappeared,” Zanganeh said. “So we’re able to of help (get them) reconnected to whoever was helping them.”
The app, though, still has a ways to go.
Only about 18 out of 100 LBPD officers who downloaded the app had used it from February to early April, according to a Cal State Long Beach study, which is part of an audit the DOJ requires as part of the grant the city received. Five officers accounted for about 80% of total app uses during that time, the report said.
“The post-implementation survey suggests that the lack of use could be attributed to few knowing about the app, others not seeing its utility, and some struggling to get it to work,” the report said. “Ultimately, despite the challenges in building an app as sophisticated as this one on a limited budget, the Guides app has potential.”
The app’s performance and utilization rate will be monitored over the next year, Haubert said, noting that he expects usage to increase as his office expands LEAD to the rest of the city, officers get familiar with the new tool, and the app is updated with additional information about available resources.
Haubert said he’s hopeful that other cities will also see it’s value — and incorporate an app of their own into law enforcement protocol.
“Guides is designed to give (law enforcement) more resources, so they can make neighborhoods safer by connecting or reconnecting people into social services,” Haubert said. “I predict other cities and counties are going to want this kind of smart technology.”