SOUTH PORTLAND – As a former police chief and current executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, I was disheartened at your portrayal of Maine’s officers in your recent series, “Deadly Force: Police & the Mentally Ill ” (Dec. 9-12).
Our officers put themselves in harm’s way every day to protect our communities. The series addressed a number of important topics related to police, people with mental illness and the use of force. Unfortunately, many of the articles in this series wrongly portray our officers as villains and miss the mark in clearly identifying one of the major causes for so many preventable tragedies: untreated mental illness.
The second article in your series, “Across nation, unsettling acceptance when mentally ill in crisis are killed” (Dec. 10), is among those. In it, Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard portrays police officers as rogues, stating, “Frequently, the use of deadly force seems excessive, if not utterly unnecessary.”
While the article implies that many of these officer-related tragedies were a result of self-defense, it gives little consideration to why these situations happen in the first place and what should be done to prevent the circumstances that led to them. Nor does the author relay any information about similar situations that ended in successfully averting tragedies.
Like many states, Maine has taken responsibility for persons with mental illness away from our medical professionals and passed it along to the criminal justice system. I see it every day.
According to a 2009 study released by the Treatment Advocacy Center, as of 2005, about 600 mentally ill Mainers were in jails and state prisons and fewer than 500 were hospitalized. So in Maine, you are more likely to be jailed for serious mental illness than treated.
Our current system often results in police officers becoming armed social workers. The results inevitably lead to violent confrontations with law enforcement officers where both the officers and people with mental illness are injured or killed. Some estimates show this type of preventable tragedy occurs four times more often than similar tragedies in the general population.
I don’t think anyone would dispute the value of training police officers to be prepared to encounter people with mental illness because, sadly, law enforcement officers are often the first line of contact when people with untreated mental illness are in crisis. But law enforcement officers, even those with specialized crisis-intervention training, are not mental health professionals.
The fact remains that severe mental illnesses are diseases of the brain and should be managed by medical professionals.
While Maine’s mental health treatment laws have improved over the past five years, the law still requires a person to present a “threat of imminent and substantial physical harm” to himself or others before an officer may take them into protective custody for an emergency mental health examination (called a “blue paper” in Maine).
By the time someone meets that standard, frantic families often feel compelled to call the police. Countless times a day, Maine law enforcement officers initiate the evaluation process that can lead to treatment for people with severe mental illnesses.
Studies show that individuals with mental illness who are treated are no more dangerous than the rest of the population. If they are left untreated, however, studies also show the risk of violence increases greatly. This makes the situation dangerous for everyone involved.
In 2008, then-Attorney General G. Steven Rowe convened a task force made up of mental health experts and law enforcement professionals to review the procedures in place for handling “situations involving individuals in a state of crisis due to serious mental illness, severe emotional distress or suicidal ideation.” The group found that officers involved acted “reasonable given the situations they were facing.”
The task force went on to identify a number of areas that needed to be addressed in order to decrease “the incidence of situations requiring police to intervene with persons with mental illness under similar highly dangerous circumstances.” While some of those suggestions have been adopted, many issues remain.
The state of Maine reformed its mental health treatment law in 2009 to include court-ordered community treatment, also called the progressive treatment program, which increases treatment compliance and reduces violence, arrest and hospitalization. Unfortunately, the law has not been implemented widely.
It is important for officers to be well-trained to support people in crisis, but it is not enough. Maine’s laws and implementation of those laws must support early intervention to reduce the need for the use of deadly force.
Robert M. Schwartz is executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, based in South Portland.