SOUTH PORTLAND — Dana Baldwin had achieved her dream job, working as a special agent for the U.S. Department of Justice.

The pay and benefits were great. The work was exciting – investigating crimes, interviewing victims, witnesses and suspects, and conducting surveillance and searches.

But it wasn’t enough.

“At the end of the day, something was still missing for me,” Baldwin says. “I thought I had the job that I always wanted and I had to look in the mirror and realize that it wasn’t. So I went in another direction completely.”

Driven by a desire to make a difference in people’s lives, Baldwin went back to school. In May, she graduated with a master’s degree in mental health counseling from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Now, Baldwin has her second dream job. Last month she became the first behavioral health liaison in the South Portland Police Department, modeled after similar positions in the Portland Police Department that have gained national attention.

Baldwin’s charge is to work with police officers as they respond to crisis calls and she follows up afterward with everyone involved. Mental health issues, domestic disputes, drug overdoses – Baldwin will provide community outreach to residents, peer support for officers, referrals for counseling, health care and other social services, information on treatment options and safety planning, and, in general, help people improve their lives.

‘WHERE I NEED TO BE’

The position taps Baldwin’s varied experience as a former Army and law enforcement officer, and more recently, as a counselor in training at several local mental health programs.

“This job fell into my lap,” Baldwin says. “I wanted something like this, but I thought it would take awhile to find it. I left the interview thinking, ‘This is where I need to be.’ I’m humbled by this opportunity.”

Police Chief Ed Googins lobbied City Manager Scott Morelli and the City Council last spring to create and fund the position’s $46,624 annual salary. He wanted the department to better address hundreds of crimes and calls for service each year that involve people in crisis, many of whom also have mental health and addiction issues.

“The nature of the work requires that first responders handle the immediate problem and move on to the next call,” Googins wrote in his budget pitch to Morelli. “This temporary intervention may save a life in the moment, but additional follow up and planning needs to be done if there is any hope for long-term change.”

Googins noted that all South Portland officers have been trained in crisis intervention and administering Narcan to opiate overdose victims.

The department’s crisis intervention team has responded to an average of 254 crisis incidents annually since 2007, he said. His officers have logged an average of 166 drug violations annually in the same period.

Drugs were a factor in 67 medical calls from November 2016 through April, he said, and his officers have administered Narcan 25 times since July 2016.

“I am not crying wolf,” Googins told the council. “I am asking for help.”

HELPING PEOPLE THRIVE

With the council’s approval, Googins sought applicants and hired Baldwin, impressed by her combination of law enforcement and mental health training and experience.

“Dana is going to help us make sure people don’t fall through the cracks,” Googins says.

Baldwin, who is 38 and married, is conditionally licensed to practice as a clinical professional counselor in Maine. She plans to apply for full licensure when she completes 3,000 clinical hours, which takes 18 to 24 months.

Baldwin decided to become a counselor because, in part, she realized that she was a gifted communicator and interviewer when she was investigating crimes as a special agent.

“People spoke to me even though they didn’t want to,” Baldwin says.

Baldwin describes her new role as acting as a bridge after officers clear the scene of a crisis, when many people have just experienced the worst day of their lives.

Baldwin says she’s aware that city officials will want to see tangible results before they fund her position for a second year, and that it might be difficult to demonstrate how she defused or prevented crises and assisted individuals.

But she hopes to benefit the department and the community more broadly, by offering a compassionate, nonjudgmental and informed response to people’s problems so they can become more productive members of society.

“When people feel supported, they’re able to contribute to the community and help it thrive,” Baldwin says. “Not every person can be reached, but for those who can, it makes it all worth it.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at:

[email protected]