BRUNSWICK — Police Officer Cory Iles said he knows his uniform might be the last thing someone with a mental illness wants to see when they are in crisis.
But more and more, people call the police when they suspect something is wrong, that someone is causing a disturbance, or may do harm to themselves or to others.
Most commonly, Iles said in an interview last week, a call comes in asking police to check on someone’s welfare – “more of a voluntary transport,” he said.
Other times, the call is to report a disturbance, as was the case one night last week when a man walked into a local store and started screaming.
“Over time, our role has morphed into social services,” Patrol Cmdr. Tom Garrepy said last week. “We tend to be the call that everybody makes, no matter what the problem may be.”
Law enforcement officials across the state report the same thing.
“The vast majority” of the 85,000 service calls responded by the Portland Police Department, the state’s largest, have some kind of “behavioral health” component, Chief Michael Sauschuck said Tuesday.
This trend places police in a “de facto mental health provider role,” according to Jenna Mehnert, Maine executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Whether that responsibility is fair or appropriate, is not a question easily answered by Mehnert, or law enforcement officials. But many agree the role of police is changing, and adapting to fill the gaps left by an insufficient number of community resources.
Almost always, Sauschuck said, crisis calls stem from “co-occurring” issues – mental health coupled with substance abuse, for example, or lack of housing.
In Brunswick, Garrepy estimated that calls have increased over the last year in large part because of the town’s growing homeless population.
Last week, the Brunswick Downtown Association hosted a standing-room-only forum to discuss disturbances attributed to homeless people. BDA Director Deborah King said the half-dozen complaints she received from businesses this summer were unprecedented.
In the absence of what Menhert said are robust, state-funded resources, communities are tackling issues related to poverty and social services on their own. And police in Brunswick and across the state are increasing their training for response to mental-health crisis calls.
As long as the calls keep coming, Garrepy and Iles said, so will police.
And they want to be prepared.
“You read about it every day, that an emotionally disturbed person is shot,” Garrepy said. “If we can have a few more tools in our toolbox, it’s going to make us better police officers.”
Police are expected to respond to everything, according to John Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy – from dogs barking to someone threatening suicide.
Officers – there are 2,600 full time in Maine, Rogers said – are required to attend an 18-week basic training academy in Vassalboro before they join their local departments.
But no matter the reason for the call – whether or not it involves mental illness – officers by law cannot place someone under arrest, or in some mental health cases, into protective custody without a determination of probable cause.
“We can’t just go and say, you’re going to the hospital,” Iles said. “We need to develop probable cause that says someone is going to harm themselves or others. It’s the same standard we use for making a criminal arrest.”
In other words, police, who are not certified mental health professionals, are often forced to make a mental-health assessment in addition to determining whether a person poses danger to themselves or others.
That assessment can be as simple as asking a question.
“A lot of times, the easiest way is just to ask, point blank, do you feel like harming yourself?” Iles said.
“A lot of times, they’ll say yes,” which happened to be the case with the shouting man last week. With his consent, Iles took him to the hospital.
When someone is placed in protective custody and then taken to the hospital – not all protective custody cases are related to mental illness – that person must be medically cleared by a doctor, Garrepy said.
When people are less willing, but meet the criteria for probable cause, Iles said the situation becomes more complicated.
What can help, however, is assistance from a mental-health professional.
Two years ago, Brunswick began a partnership with Sweetser, a mental-health services organization with more than 500 employees and an office on Bath Road.
Brunswick police now have the ability to call one of Sweetser’s professional, state-certified crisis services providers, who can help officers in several ways: assisting in assessment at the scene, relaying dispatch calls at the station, or receiving people at their offices.
The department used to have a Sweetser professional embedded in its department for about a dozen hours every week. Garrepy said staffing limitations at Sweetser have put the arrangement on hold.
Ultimately, police decide if a person needs to be taken to the hospital, to Sweetser, or arrested – if they have committed an offense and don’t satisfy a mental illness assessment, according to Leslie Mulhearn, senior director of Crisis, Clinic and Community Based Services at Sweetser.
That’s because probable cause is a decision based on state law, and without it, police can’t do anything.
“We try to help them make a case for imminent risk, but ultimately, they do have to make the decision,” Mulhearn said.
Brunswick’s program takes after one in Portland, which for more than 20 years has had at least one full-time employee dedicated to the issue through a partnership with Opportunity Alliance.
To a greater scale than in Brunswick, Portland has also publicly addressed in recent weeks how to properly address mental illness and policing.
“We’re walking through the door together,” Chief Sauschuck said about what he terms a “co-responder model.”
In Brunswick, Mulhearn said Sweetser’s help goes beyond just probable cause determination.
“We try to stay with people until they’re stabilized,” Mulhearn said, meaning once someone comes in contact with Sweetser, crisis worker providers will stick with them for days or weeks to track progress.
Sweetser can also help police avoid unnecessary arrests.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Garrepy said, an arrest, or simply enduring the stigma associated with a ride in a police cruiser, can inflame symptoms or cause additional trauma.
He said keeping people out of the hospital is an officer’s priority, if it can be avoided.
Brunswick’s program is still in its infancy, and Garrepy said the department does not have a tool to measure its success (charting the level of protective custody calls wouldn’t work, because not all involve mental illness).
Anecdotally, though, “it does work,” Garrepy asserted. “I will stand out on the edge of the cliff and say it does work.”
Not all police departments have the benefit of community-based partnerships.
What is perhaps a better indication of the shift toward “customer service”-oriented policing, as Garrepy called it, is the change in officer training.
Following a 2014 piece of legislation that ultimately became a board-adopted mandate by the Criminal Justice Academy, 20 percent of all full-time officers in each law enforcement agency are required to receive eight hours of state-certified mental-health training by 2018.
That eight-hour block was incorporated into the academy curriculum in late 2014, Mehnert said, and her organization, NAMI, has historically taught the class.
Officers can also receive a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training, which NAMI doesn’t charge for, but Mehnert said costs departments about $1,500 because of the costs of sending an officer away for a week.
Six of Brunswick’s 20 patrol officers have received that training, Garrepy said, and they are deployed when possible for calls that likely involve a mental health component.
Rogers said the 2014 bill-turned-mandate originally proposed 40 hours of training, but he couldn’t justify the amount of time it would take away from other instruction.
He also argued the extensive nature of the training wasn’t necessarily for all officers; as in Brunswick, it’s meant to train officers in a specialty.
“I counter with, if my officers are going to see this issue on Day 1, why wait,” he said, adding that every Portland officer is CIT-certified.
“The volume of these calls are such that these are no longer a specialty,” Sauschuck said.
Increased training means a better quality of customer service, Menhert said, but it’s also fairer to officers.
“If (an officer) is pretty green, or doesn’t have live experience with mental illness, it’s a pretty unfair situation to put (police) in to make a judgment call,” Menhert said.
Iles, who at 29 has been with Brunswick for less than two years, said he only has basic academy training, although he received some additional mental health training at a prior job at a jail.
“We recognize that (for) somebody in a crisis… probably the last person they need is a police officer,” Iles said. “That’s a gap in our system.”
In the last decade, that gap has widened in the absence of state-funded mobile crisis units and resources, according to Mehnert.
Sauschuck agreed, saying while state institutions were “torn down to the studs” for valid reasons – he summarized them as behind-closed-door injustices – they were never replaced with new services and supports.
“And that has led to law enforcement being heavily involved,” he said. “We are lacking resources on all levels.”
He said Portland is “blessed” that Opportunity Alliance runs a mobile crisis unit, where, instead of calling the police, people in crisis can call a service provider.
Sweetser also has a mobile crisis unit, and a crisis hotline: 1-888-568-1112.
When asked if she thought it was inappropriate that police are playing an increasing role in mental-health crisis intervention, Mulhearn echoed what most others did: in an ideal world, probably.
But in the real world, training efforts are only likely to increase.
“We realize we’re probably not the best option, but we’re the most secure,” Iles said. “At least until somebody comes up with something else.”
Brunswick Police Cmdr. Tom Garrepy was a lieutenant when he made this traffic stop on Bath Road last year. Garrepy, who now oversees the department’s patrol squads, is pushing for more officer training as the number of crisis calls involving mental illness increase.
Brunswick Police Cmdr. Tom Garrepy: “If we can have a few more tools in our toolbox, it’s going to make us better police officers.”
Edited 10/20 to update state crisis hotline number.