Biddeford Police Chief Roger Beaupre said a new program recently approved by the City Council will help people experiencing mental illness, substance abuse and other issues get services they need. Tammy Wells/Journal Tribune file photo

BIDDEFORD — The Biddeford Police Department will partner with Spurwink Adult Behavioral Health to help them help people they encounter frequently who have mental illness, substance use issues and other unmet needs.

The Community Engagement Specialist will accompany police on calls to aid with mental health related issues in the moment as well as connect people identified by the department with social services and other community supports. The individual will provide follow up services after police involvement, conduct community outreach, convene a monthly group of stakeholders to increase collaboration and work with the city’s Opioid Use Disorder Liaison.

Police Chief Roger Beaupre said officers responding to complaints on the street frequently encounter people  with mental illness, substance use, homelessness and other issues.

“It’s not a crime to be homeless,” said Beaupre, adding that often, people in that situation are not getting services to aid them.

“We’re hoping to bridge that gap,” he said.

Police officers are trained to deescalate situations that can occur and take an individual for assessment if they pose a threat to themselves or others, Beaupre said in a recent interview. But officers are not counselors, nor can they do assessments.

A similar program was in place in the city in 1998, said Beaupre, but it ended due to lack of funding.

Beaupre said the earlier program made a difference.

“We were happy with the outcome back then and could see the benefit to aid officers in dealing with special situations and people in mental crisis,” he said.

The City Council approved a two-year contract with Spurwink earlier this month in which the police department will pay 50 percent of the first-year cost — about $32,000, using a training reimbursement from another municipality. The police department will work with Spurwink to secure grant funding for the remaining 50 percent of the first year, with Spurwink absorbing the cost if that is unsuccessful. Biddeford Police Department is responsible for the second-year costs, and Beaupre said he is looking for federal funds to continue the program.

“I am in hopes the Department of Justice will see the value and make grant funding available,” he said,

The police chief said he hopes to have the clinician in place by the first of November. The community engagement Specialist will have an office at Biddeford Police Department.

City councilors approved the measure in a unanimous vote.

“Police are dealing with a lot of issues they didn’t use to deal with,” said Councilor Michael Ready. “They’re dealing with people with serious mental issues and living with severe distress. I think this is a good step … I think it is a positive thing. I hope it is successful.”

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Councilor Stephen St. Cyr. He noted no specific source has been allocated for the second year of program funding, and said perhaps funding could be freed up by looking at other resources.

Beaupre said the department will do the best it can to help provide services.

“We’re dealing with quality of life issues and that is attuned to community policing at its best,” said Beaupre.

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