The Biddeford City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to add two mental health workers to the police department to help handle a growing number of mental health calls in the community.

Like police in other southern Maine cities, Biddeford’s officers have been responding to more calls from people in crisis or struggling with their mental health. Police departments, including Biddeford, have responded by hiring mental health workers better equipped to help people during and after crises.

Police Chief Roger Beaupre asked for funding to expand a contract with Spurwink, which will allow the department to add two community engagement specialists to help respond to mental health crises and work with people to access treatment and resources. The two additional mental health workers will join Jacob Hammer, who started in his role as community engagement specialist in January and has handled more than 300 referrals in his first six months.

The City Council authorized City Manager James Bennett to expand the contract with Spurwink at a cost of up to $230,000 for the first year and $237,000 in the second year. That includes the new positions as well as Hammer’s salary and clinical supervision provided by Spurwink.

Between Jan. 1 and June 20, Biddeford police received 334 calls involving mental illness or suicide attempts. Police, fire and emergency medical personnel spent 284 hours in the field responding to those calls. Beaupre said these types of calls have increased, but he does not have comparable data for previous years because the department started coding the calls differently this year.

Many of the interactions between police and people experiencing a mental health problem don’t involve criminal activity. The majority of mental health calls don’t involve a threat to safety and the people would be better served by mental health professionals who can connect them to treatment options, Beaupre said.

The Rev. Shirley Bowen, executive director of Seeds of Hope, a drop-in neighborhood center that provides meals, support and advocacy, was the only person from the public to speak before the council vote. Seeds of Hope calls Hammer a couple times a day because of the “extreme mental health challenges” people in the community are experiencing, she said.

Bowen told councilors about a recent situation where the mental health of a man at the center had deteriorated and he was speaking about suicide. Hammer was not immediately available, so a police officer was the first to respond.

While the officer handled the situation well, the presence of a uniformed officer was upsetting to the man and escalated the situation, Bowen said.

“For some people, the uniform is a trigger,” she said. “(Hammer) has the amazing ability as a non-uniformed person to talk him through and get him to a lower level where they could make a plan.”

Councilors supported the idea of adding the two community engagement specialists, but some questioned why it hadn’t come up as part of the budget process.

Councilor Amy Clearwater praised the police department for moving in this direction and for how first responders have handled mental health crises that require a “whole different skill set.”

“There is a tremendous need in society for care that has not been prioritized and the need has fallen to police departments because they’re there,” she said.


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