Bangor will soon send social workers to mental health calls instead of the cops

Bangor will soon launch a program to send social workers to welfare calls instead of patrol officers to minimize interactions between law enforcement and people in mental health crisis.

The city gave the Bangor Police Department $285,000 in its annual budget this year to fund the Bangor Community Assistance Team. Four positions will soon be advertised for hiring, City Manager Debbie Laurie said.

The team was responding to calls about people dealing with a mental health crisis, homelessness, disorientation or other circumstances that affected the community but did not put it at risk, according to a copy of the program application provided. by Laurie.

Members would defuse, calm and refer people they encountered to services, depending on the program description, with the option of calling a police officer or the department’s mental health community liaison officer for backup.

Mental health has played a role in at least two fatal encounters between Mainers and police this year, leading the state agency that reviews police use of deadly force to advise law enforcement to develop a plan to respond to people in mental crisis.

Mathew Bowers, Topsham Police Officer shot and killed Kourtney Sherwood in February after police were called to make threats of homicide and suicide while parked next to the Merrymeeting Bridge. An unidentified man also shot himself during a traffic stop in Saco in April.

Almost Isle Police Officer Tyler Cote also fatally shot Jacob Poitraw in June after police said the 25-year-old threatened others and led officers on a car chase across the town in Aroostook County.

Poitraw had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts for years and sought treatment in vain, his mother, Renee Duarte, told the Bangor Daily News.

Hannah Longley, senior clinical director of community programs for the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the program would help reduce the stigma around mental health crises by reframing it as a medical condition.

She compared mental health workers to specialists, like the paramedics who show up when someone calls 911 to deal with a heart attack.

“Having a mental health worker available and able to engage and respond, where possible, is by far a much better option than having law enforcement respond,” Longley said.

The pandemic worsen an already existing shortage of psychiatrists and mental health services available in Maine, straining emergency rooms and lengthening waiting lists for services.

“COVID just exacerbated that,” Longley said. “And as a result, law enforcement has taken on the brunt of the burden of really responding in the community to people who are seriously ill and in need of support.”

A Bangor Police Department spokesperson returned a request for comment to Laurie.

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