January 6

Training to aid mentally ill a priority for Maine police

Most officers in Portland and elsewhere in Maine are learning how to intervene amid a mental health crisis.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

When Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck was a young community policing officer, he and his partner were called to the Casco Bay Lines parking garage for a person behaving and driving erratically.

They found the man, a driver of a Cadillac in the upper levels of the parking garage, but could barely communicate with him.

“This individual truly believed in his mind we were agents of the devil and we were there to kill him,” Sauschuck said. The officers ended up in the cab of the car, fighting to keep the man from putting it in gear and running them over.

The experience helped convince Sauschuck that he should enroll in the department’s first Crisis Intervention Team class in 2001.

“When something like that happens, you play those conversations in your mind: ‘Did I do absolutely everything possible to help this individual?’” Sauschuck said. “I knew personally and professionally I needed more information.”

Now, 12 years later, every officer in the state’s largest municipal police force, the first to embrace crisis intervention training, has completed a 40-hour course in identifying and responding to the array of people with mental illnesses that officers encounter.

The achievement comes as the number of police calls related to a person’s mental health has been climbing for years, in part because residential facilities for people with mental illness have closed.

Portland identified 4,013 calls for service in 2012 that related to a person’s mental health, up from 3,311 the year before. Numbers for 2013 have not yet been compiled.

The stakes on such calls can be high.

Some are mundane – people talking to themselves or acting strangely, who are deemed to be no danger to themselves or others despite their abnormal behavior and who cooperate with police. Others are more perilous, both for officers and the person in crisis.

A 2012 report by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that 42 percent of the 57 people shot by Maine police officers since 2000 were mentally ill, and they represented 58 percent of the 33 people killed in officer-involved shootings.

The report found that most officers lack the specialized training in recognizing and de-escalating confrontations stemming from mental illness.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of Portland’s public safety and health and human services committee, said having every officer trained to deal with people in mental health crisis is an important achievement that will pay off.

“It’s notable it’s been a long time since we had a fatal shooting where a police officer shot someone who was having a serious mental illness situation,” Suslovic said. “That shows how important the CIT training is and really how the entire department gets it when it comes to the challenge.”

But the training does not prevent deadly confrontations.

South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins said he is also committed to the program. All but two of the officers in his 53-person department have been certified in CIT. He notes that both of the city’s fatal police shootings in 2006 and 2008 involved people with a mental health crisis. In both cases, CIT-trained officers were on hand but did not have an opportunity to mitigate the threatening behavior that led to the use of deadly force.

Googins says the training is an essential tool for modern police work.

“This really is developing career-long survival skills, because mental health calls, we’ve had a number of them go very badly over the years,” he said.

Portland is the largest, but not the only, police department in Maine to provide CIT training to all of its officers. In addition to South Portland police, Sanford police and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office also have trained all or nearly all of their officers.

(Continued on page 2)

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