PORTLAND — The city’s police officers respond to as many as 15 calls a day to deal with people who have mental illnesses.

Some of the calls are routine, like reports of drinking in public. Some have the potential to turn violent, as officers try to arrest people in crisis.

The Portland Police Department now plans to expand its ability to deal with people in mental health crises and direct them to community resources. The city has won a federal grant to hire a mental health coordinator who will oversee an internship program that will train people to become counselors and social workers.

“Our officers are trained to treat people humanely, keep them safe and with our mental health liaison, help them access the services and treatment they need,” Police Chief James Craig said in a statement announcing the two-year, $184,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. “These additional funds will allow us to build on these foundations and better serve the city.”

The city’s mental health liaison, Jo Freedman, works full time but cannot respond to nearly all of the mental-health calls to police. She specializes in de-escalating psychotic, homicidal or suicidal people.

The position was created in 1996 through a partnership with what is now Youth Alternatives/Ingraham. Police were increasingly seeing mentally ill people in crisis because many people who had been in state facilities were discharged into the community without services to accommodate them.

Three years later, the police department became the first in the state to create a Crisis Intervention Team, officers trained to deal with people in mental health crises.

Carol Carothers, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine, said there are now 900 officers and other emergency responders trained in crisis intervention, including many Portland officers.

The issue has been a priority for Craig since a woman threatened to jump off the Casco Bay Bridge a year ago. After a perilous rescue by police, the woman was taken to Maine Medical Center. The next day, she went back to the bridge.

Police learned that the woman had been responsible for 23 police contacts in the preceding 11 months.

Part of the new coordinator’s job will be to collect data on police contacts with the mentally ill. Many of those contacts are repetitive – the same people being taken to jail or to a hospital, then released a short time later only to repeat the behavior.

Understanding the problem will help the department address it. The coordinator also will be expected to develop a program for funneling people who have repeated police contacts into community services that could help break the cycle.

The most noticeable part of the coordinator’s job will be to establish and run an internship program, which will add to the department’s ability to respond and also provide valuable training for people seeking to become licensed clinical social workers or licensed clinical professional counselors.

The coordinator will oversee four interns who need on-the-job training for their education. They will help respond to calls.

The program also will increase the number of professionals in Greater Portland who are trained in crisis intervention. In the future, the plan is for the coordinator to help expand the services by developing similar internship programs in neighboring police agencies.


Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]