With so many holes in the safety net, many mental health crises end up being jobs for the police, which too often turns county jails into de facto mental institutions.
It’s not only an expensive way to deal with the problem, it’s often ineffective. The Portland Police Department continues to be a leader in finding a better way.
Since 1996, the department has had a full-time mental health liaison on board, and for the last three years it has had a crisis intervention team, in which officers receive special training to react appropriately.
Now a $184,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice gives officers another tool to respond to what are too-common occurrences out on the street.
Portland Police Chief James Craig said he became motivated to do more a year ago when his officers rescued a woman who threatened to kill herself by jumping off the Casco Bay Bridge.
The woman was taken to Maine Medical Center, and when she was released the next day, she went back to the bridge.
Craig said he found out that she had been the subject of 23 police contacts in less than a year.
The grant will pay to train more police officers to defuse potentially dangerous situations. At times, if an officer takes the right approach, the crisis can be averted, and the person does not have to be taken to jail or anywhere else.
That’s important because Maine has lost more than $50 million in state and federal money for the community mental health system over the last two years, and the system that has been put together in the last 20 years is showing the signs of weakness from underfunding.
Former Maine Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, who serves as special master in the lawsuit that led to the shutdown of the Augusta Mental Health Institute, issued a report earlier this year critical of state funding decisions that left some people without the care they needed.
That makes the kind of effort Portland police are making even more critical. Their goal is, and should be, getting people to the services that they need.
But if those services are not available, the police officer’s response becomes even more critical.