PORTLAND – The city’s police sometimes get 15 calls a day to deal with people who have mental illness.

Some are refusing to get out of the street or from in front of a store. Others are intimidating pedestrians, and some are threatening to hurt themselves or others.

The Portland Police Department has developed extensive relationships with mental health providers, has 75 percent of its officers trained in crisis intervention, and for 14 years has had a mental health liaison jointly funded by Ingraham/Youth Alternatives.

The federal Office of Justice Programs decided that Portland’s approach to people in mental health crisis makes it an ideal training site for other police agencies developing programs for dealing with what advocates say is a growing problem.

“The federal government has recognized the excellent job they’re doing around cops and mental health,” said Carol Carothers, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Maine.

Designating training sites for other departments also shows that the federal government is taking the issue more seriously, she said.

“I think there’s a recognition at the Department of Justice that police officers are really the first responders for people in psychiatric crisis,” she said.

Portland’s department was named one of six Specialized Policing Responses: Law Enforcement/Mental Health Learning Sites.

“They looked for sites that could demonstrate a range of promising strategies a law enforcement agency might consider when trying to improve officers’ encounters involving people with mental illness,” according to a statement from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the Department of Justice.

“The Portland Police Department’s application demonstrated a strong collaborative initiative among crisis service providers in Portland, including shelters, homeless outreach (and) case management service providers,” the statement said.

The other five police departments selected by the Department of Justice are in Salt Lake City, Houston, Los Angeles and Madison, Wis., and at the University of Florida.

Portland has had a 28 percent increase this year over last year in the number of contacts between officers and people who are mentally ill, said Jo Freedman, who has served as mental health liaison for four years and is now the department’s mental health coordinator.

A couple of high-profile incidents in the past month drew in police. A man set himself on fire in Longfellow Square, and a woman jumped from the Casco Bay Bridge.

Sometimes, police get multiple calls about the same person. The person’s behavior may not be criminal or serious enough for involuntary transport to a hospital, but it still elicits a police response, Freedman said.

Having officers who understand mental illness makes her job much easier, she said.

“They’re really compassionate. They’re not using that stereotypical bravado. They’re using respect,” she said.

It also makes the department a good model.

Portland has already served as an unofficial training site, helping spread the Crisis Intervention Team concept — in which officers are trained to recognize and ameliorate symptoms of various mental illnesses — to many departments and jails in Maine, said Carothers.

Robin Gauvin, a former sergeant with the Portland Police Department who now works for the U.S. Marshal’s Service, helped the department take a more collaborative approach to people in crisis. He said collaboration with social service providers was the key to addressing the problem in a more positive way.

“Before the collaboration, the relationship was broken. We took a lot of people to jail. Taking them to jail was easy,” he said.

Learning about each other’s skills and limitations helped improve that response, he said.

Carothers also credited former Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood with ushering in the change in Portland officers’ response to people in crisis, with the Crisis Intervention Team program and the mental health liaison position.

 

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

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