Law Enforcement Town Hall highlights impact of mental health as top issue

STATEWIDE — In a recent town hall style forum, we spoke to police chiefs from around the region about the biggest issues they deal with and how they’re trying to address them.  Virtually all of them pointed to one issue as the biggest challenge facing their departments, fueling more calls for service than any other, and forcing them to think outside the box in how to handle it.

On any given day, law enforcement officers in Maine suit up knowing they could face just about anything. Their training has prepared them for that. But now their biggest challenge is one they say police departments didn’t expect.

The growing number of calls for service when community members find themselves in a mental health-related crisis.

Bucksport Public Safety Director Sean Geagan said, “The mental illness and the drug issues are out of control to put it bluntly.”

“I think that’s really the biggest hurdle that we’re facing right now,” said Ellsworth Police Chief Glen Moshier.

According to an article published in 2021 by the American Psychological Association. it was estimated that at least 20 percent of police calls for service involved a mental health or substance use crisis. In Veazie, mental health calls more than doubled from 14 calls in 2020 to 30 calls in 2022. For communities with hospitals nearby, mental health calls often are connected to those facilities. In Augusta in 2021 there were 87 mental health calls connected to Maine General Medical Center. In 2022, that number climbed to 93. In Ellsworth, home to Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital, 2021 saw 28 mental health calls. That number more than doubled to 58 in 2022. Those numbers were provided by the chiefs themselves.

Augusta Police Chief Jared Mills says the growing number of calls for service put them in a difficult position.

“We became the social workers, and we became the default of who you call. And now law enforcement across the United States are scrutinized for that,” he said.

That’s why Bangor Police Sergeant Jason McAmbley says they’re implementing what’s called the BCAT, or Bangor Community Action Team.

“They’re social workers that are gonna go out and handle calls that will be dispatched through the police department and they’re going to take some of the load off the officers,” McAmbley said.

He says once that team is active, he believes they’ll see a 50 percent reduction in those non-policing services for officers, putting the right professionals with the right training where they’re needed.

“It’s going to take them a while to get up to speed and we understand that. And they are going to be spread out over the course of a day and the weekends and connect the people that need the resources to those resources because the police don’t have that expertise. We’re not social workers,” McAmbley said.

Chief Mills says programs like that require multiple layers of investment from the community. But it’s a case worth making…

“You need to really get the buy in from your local tax base to do that because we’re not getting a lot of assistance from the federal or the state, funding for that. But that’s the model,” Mills said.

Director Geagan echoed those sentiments, saying “if the state’s going to spend any extra money in the coming years it has to be on mental health.”

But it’s not just the struggles of community members that are in the spotlight now.  The unspoken impact of incidents like the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, combined with the everyday incidents that haunt police officers, have ended numerous careers and fueled disturbingly high numbers of suicides among law enforcement. It’s forced departments to open a broader dialogue when it comes to the mental health of their own.

Super: Veazie Police Chief Mark Leonard said, “We’re taking a different approach. Not only because of Sandy Hook. That played a major role but I think we’re stepping away from, the persona has always been that we are the fixers and we don’t worry about ourselves. Fortunately, we are now looking at each other and saying hey you need help, or we need help, or I need help. And that is a drastic change that I’ve seen.”

Leonard says that change has been years, even decades in the making, but will be crucial to maintaining a healthy police force in the future.

“We’re finally realizing that it is impacting us. It’s not only impacting us it is impacting our families and as chief law enforcement officers, it’s our responsibility to make sure our troops are ok. But it doesn’t matter if our troops are ok if we’re not ok,” Leonard said.

This town hall was the first of we hope to be an ongoing conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the public that they serve.