SOUTH PORTLAND — The city’s budget process this year could include a look into social services and crisis calls that are typically responded to by police officers.

Charged with providing recommendations as to whether there should be changes to the response to certain calls for service, the South Portland Police Services Review Working Group, approved by the South Portland City Council in September 2020, has found six different strategies it recommends to the city. The group presented the findings on Feb. 16.

City Manager Scott Morelli said the committee was asked to provide recommendations before the budget process began. Recommendations are made, however, “to the extent that there is available funding,” he said.

The ad-hoc group consisted of South Portland residents and city staff members, including Police Chief Timothy Sheehan, Fire Chief James Wilson, Finance Director Greg L’Heureux and Social Services Director Kathleen Babeu, according to the report. Councilor April Caricchio was also an appointed member.

The group was asked to determine if escalation is happening in South Portland, said Craig Freshley, the group’s facilitator.

The term “escalation” was defined as “a civil situation that turns unnecessarily contentious for the mere presence of someone or something (such as the showing up of a South Portland armed, uniformed police officer) that brings some level of trauma, anxiety, or intimidation to a person suffering or in crisis,” he said.

“Intended or not, there are instances of escalation when South Portland uniformed officers respond to calls,” Freshley said. “However, based on data provided and info available, we have seen no evidence that South Portland police officers deliberately escalate situations and we have no evidence of inappropriate shows of force.”

Sometimes escalation can be due to mismatched deployment due to lack of resources, said Freshley. Sometimes escalation is due to someone’s prior experiences or the emotional state of individuals involved.

“Maybe the call doesn’t really warrant an armed officer,” he said. “It’s somebody who’s hungry or needs shelter, and if that person wasn’t confronted with a police officer, escalation might not result.”

The group also determined that it’s not reasonable to expect officers to respond to every social service call, said Freshley.

To reduce the number of crisis calls that may result in escalation, the group is recommending six strategies that fall into three categories, he said. These recommendations have two objectives: reduction in the number of crises needing a police response and a continuation of improved methods of response to minimize chances of escalation when police are called.

The first category, the objective of getting people the help they need, includes the city’s use of contracted Mobile Crisis Services and also fire department community paramedics, said Freshley.

“We recommend that the city contract with one or more existing local providers such as Amistad or The HOME Team,” said the report. “Each of these organizations has substance abuse and behavioral health professionals on staff and would be able to answer calls anywhere in the South Portland area during daytime hours.”

A contracted service provider could cost $90,000 to $180,000 per year, said the report.

Continuous police improvement, the second objective involves continuous police training and Alternative Response Pilot, said Freshley.

The group recommends that the police department continue to pursue an Alternative Response Pilot recently established with the Behavioral Health Unit of Portland Police Department, Police Department Behavioral Health Liaison, and a contracted employee that Portland has from the Opportunity Alliance, the report said. This approach comes at no cost because of existing resources.

The last objective is about awareness and education, strategies involving more awareness of available services and continuing community conversation about racism, said Freshley. Both strategies would not include a cost.

Public comments were supportive of the group’s work overall, but a few residents had questions or concerns about the logistics.

Resident Bri Bowman said she supports the recommended funding amounts but thinks that adding another phone number for people in a crisis to call could be confusing.

Sheehan said the police department doesn’t want residents to need a new number either.

“It’s engrained in everybody already that they hit 911 when they’re in crisis,” Sheehan said. “And that would also be helpful if there was another response besides that of a uniformed armed police officer, so that’s what we’re working on with the alternative response pilot is using our behavioral health liaison, three of Portland’s, a person that’s there on a grant from the Opportunity Alliance, and trying to triage it so individuals feel safe responding to certain particular calls, behavioral health calls, well-being checks, transportation, homelessness and anything else.”

Resident Sascha Braunig said she would argue against the idea of adding social workers to the police department.

“Calls related to food and housing security, mental health and substance dependence should not be criminalized, and I’m concerned that by putting those new resources under law enforcement management, no matter how progressive their employees are, those resources are simply in the wrong category,” she said. “I say this with all due respect to the non-policing services that officers are currently being asked to provide.”

Councilor Sue Henderson told the council that an upcoming meeting on homelessness is scheduled for March 9 and she asked that councilors wait until findings on homelessness in the city are presented.

There is a possibility that the city council prioritizes the strategies recommended to it during the upcoming budget cycle, and Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo said she would also be interested to see what types of grants are available.

“As we’ve pointed out all together multiple times, this is going to be a tough budget year and we’re going to be combing through the budget maybe more than people have in the past at all and looking at each individual line,” she said. “This for me is incredibly important and will be at the top of my list. So I will, myself, look through things and try to work with everyone to make this happen.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: