Student protesters are joined by police at the South Portland police station in a demonstration against institutional racism in June 2020. Derek Davis/ Portland Press Herald

SOUTH PORTLAND — A group reviewing how South Portland police handle mental health-related situations wants the city to use social services to prevent tensions between police and people of color.

The South Portland Police Services Working Group, which was commissioned by the council in September 2020, presented its recommendations to the city council Feb. 16. The advisory group was formed in the wake of protests and calls nationwide for review of police department policies after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis. The 10-person group included public officials and residents, including Police Chief Timothy Sheehan, City Councilor April Caricchio and Pedro Vazquez, chairman of the South Portland Civil Rights Commission.

The group’s principal task was to see if the presence of a police officer on various calls in South Portland has led to any escalations – defined as a more contentious or intimidating situation than necessary – and, if so, suggest what could be done.

The group unanimously agreed that escalations do happen, but not because of direct action by officers.

“Based on the data provided and information available, we have seen no evidence that South Portland police officers deliberately escalate situations and no evidence of inappropriate shows of force,” the group wrote in its report.

“We did not quantify that to a specific number or percentage,” Vazquez said.

Group facilitator Craig Freshley said the conclusions were based on 36,000 calls from August 2019 to December 2020 that were provided by the police department. Freshley said the group also put out a call for the public to provide any anecdotal evidence of deliberate escalation, inappropriate force or other misconduct.

Freshley could not say how many of the 36,000 calls the group reviewed, but Vazquez said the group reviewed several hundred calls police officers had responded to, along with anecdotal information from people who had interacted with the police.

Most of these cases, he said, involved interactions with people experiencing a mental health crisis, those who were homeless, or someone suffering from a substance abuse problem.  According to statistics provided by the South Portland Police Department, officers handled 1,166 of those calls in 2017; 1,237 calls in 2018; and 1,431 calls in 2019. These figures encompassed calls for suicide threats, people who were intoxicated, calls for a person sleeping or lying on the ground in public, well-being checks and behavioral health calls.

Vazquez, a descendant of the indigenous Taino people of Boriken, more commonly known as Puerto Rico,  said he was pleased to see a lack of excessive force or other stark examples of misconduct seen in other cities nationwide; adding that he does not fear police. “There may be other people who feel differently,” he said.

Sheehan said the lack of evidence of excessive force speaks to the extensive training his officers have had regarding de-escalation of hostility in conflict, mental health awareness and racial sensitivity training. Those programs, he said, were in place before he became chief, and were one of the reasons he wanted to work in South Portland.

“There were a lot of reasons why this department was distinguished among other departments,” he said.

Caricchio said one thing that struck her during the working group’s analysis was seeing firsthand the heavy workload that both the police and the city’s social services department have.

“That tells me that the need for services in our community is rising, or has risen,” she said.

Continued training for police, as well as more public conversations about racism in the city, were among the group’s recommendations, but the group also wanted to see two key preventive measures: First, to contract with third-party social services organizations to address public needs before someone has to call 911. Sheehan, Vazquez and Caricchio all agreed that this should be a top priority.

Sheehan spoke in particular about the Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement team (HOME), which he saw firsthand in a ride-along he did in Portland in September 2020. He said the city of Portland pays HOME to go into the community and work with those who need services. Sheehan said interactions with people by HOME workers were positive and productive, and he could easily see how it would be a good alternative to someone calling 911 in South Portland and then dealing with an armed, uniformed police officer.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to bring that here,'” he said.

The group also suggested a similar initiative with the fire department, noting that paramedics did a similar six-week program in fall 2020, paid for by a grant from the Keep Maine Healthy Program, where paramedics spoke to homeless people temporarily living in the city’s hotels. The group’s report notes that the paramedics were able to offer basic medical care, which is geared toward reducing the number of emergency runs in the future for fire, EMS and police.

City Manager Scott Morelli said the council has directed him to include funding needed for programs recommended in his proposed 2022 budget, slated for first viewing by the council later this month.

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