Bob Rockett smelled the gasoline through the open window of his unmarked police car as he pulled off Interstate 295.

He had just been briefed by a dispatch supervisor about a man who had doused himself with gasoline, possibly armed with a knife, and was standing on the edge of what turned out to be a dam just off Westbrook Street in South Portland, threatening to jump.

Rockett is a crisis counselor with Opportunity Alliance, assigned to the Portland Police Department. He responds as needed to South Portland.

His voice and demeanor are steady and soothing, ideal for someone who’s called on to communicate with people who are desperate, despondent or delusional — threatening themselves or others.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said crisis counselors like Rockett are incredibly patient and compassionate, an ideal complement to police and firefighters in some situations. “Their communication skills and just straight people skills are top-notch,” he said.

In the period from April through the end of June, Portland police responded to 15,585 calls for service, 1,000 of which were ultimately mental health calls.

The department’s behavioral health unit has expanded along with the increase in calls about people in mental health crisis. It now includes Rockett and the team’s coordinator, who is also a crisis counselor, and three interns.

On Thursday, with rush hour beginning, Rockett pulled up to the chaotic scene and was briefed by a South Portland police commander.

Over the south side of Westbrook Street, just before it passes under I-295, is a concrete dam, about 4 feet wide, with a drop of about 20 feet to rocks and the shallow water.

The distraught man, who after covering himself in gasoline had dashed across the busy road and out onto the dam, was threatening to dive.

Rockett worked his way through the dense tangle of sumac to one end of the bridge and called to the man.

Crisis counselors have to stay safe, especially if a person might be armed. If a person has a gun, police negotiators with the tactical team handle communications.

Conditions on the dam were far from ideal.

Rockett had to yell to the man over the sound of the waterfall that separated them and the traffic zipping by above. Yelling isn’t conducive to de-escalating a tense situation, and the man couldn’t hear him anyway.

Rockett walked around to the other side, where the man was on the edge of the dam, and climbed down an overgrown hillside so he could stand on a tangle of debris at the water’s edge.

“I felt if I stepped the wrong way I could have been an accidental casualty,” he said. “It was very precarious.”

He started a conversation.

“As quickly as possible, you want to try to find out who the person is, what their motivations are for being in the particular situation,” Rockett said.

“You’re not trying to do impromptu therapy. The relationship, the rapport, is what’s vital. You’re helping them move through that crisis phase, get from an irrational place to a more rational place,” he said.

Rockett gets people to focus on their values, on what’s important to them, and how they can get there.

Rockett, 47, has a breadth of social work experience — in the special management unit of the Maine State Prison, as an outreach worker with Portland’s homeless population and in outpatient therapy.

Portland police statistics show that the number of police calls caused by mental health problems ranges from 4 to 6 percent, said Jo Freedman, mental health coordinator for the department.

Freedman oversees Rockett and three interns, who are in the University of Southern Maine’s master’s degree program in social work. Freedman also goes on calls.

In fact, while Rockett was talking the man off the dam, Freedman was engaging a woman who had threatened herself and coworkers.

Crisis counseling can be stressful but rewarding, Rockett said.

“The most important thing is the concern for the person you’re working with. That’s what makes it really stressful. You’re concerned for this person that might hurt themselves and you’re concerned for the people who love them.”

There were tense moments Thursday, when it appeared the man was going to jump regardless of the intervention.

“Voices were raised,” he said. “As much as you want to be as calm and neutral as possible, there is an ebb and flow in your own part. Sometimes you have to change up your tone a bit to re-acquire the person’s attention.”

About 90 minutes after police were called, Rockett persuaded the man to accompany him.

“At the end, the person calmly walked up the hill with me … and turned himself over to officers and agreed to get help,” he said.

After such an incident, Rockett seeks out the family and friends of the person he has encountered in crisis, who will need resources themselves.

Freedman says about half of Rockett’s time is spent interacting with people in crisis, and the other half is spent working to keep people out of crisis.

Sauschuck said that while a high-profile incident is in the public eye, the day-to-day work afterward can have the greatest impact on individuals’ lives and the community.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice named the Portland Police Department one of six training sites in the country where other departments can learn best practices.

For the 14 years the police liaison position has existed, Portland officers have been trained in crisis intervention — though not to the degree of a crisis counselor. Now, 90 percent of the force has that training.

Steve Addario, director of the crisis intervention program at Opportunity Alliance, urged clients, family members or friends to call 774-HELP before a situation requires police. 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com