State's mental health crisis a priority for Portland chief

Posted Dec. 23, 2009, at 8:36 p.m.
Portland Police Chief James Craig is interviewed Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009 at his office in Portland, Maine. Craig has been Police Chief for 8 months after working in the Los Angeles Police Department for 28 years. (AP Photo/Joel Page)
Joel Page | AP
Portland Police Chief James Craig is interviewed Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009 at his office in Portland, Maine. Craig has been Police Chief for 8 months after working in the Los Angeles Police Department for 28 years. (AP Photo/Joel Page)

PORTLAND, Maine — Police are dealing with increased gang activity, drug-fueled crime and rowdiness in the city’s Old Port, but it’s a mental health crisis that represents the biggest public safety challenge, the police chief said.

Officers in Maine’s largest city have received about 3,000 calls from people threatening suicide this year, and violence involving people with mental illness is a regular occurrence, Chief James Craig told The Associated Press in an interview.

Just last month, officers risked their lives to prevent a suicidal woman from jumping from the Casco Bay Bridge into Portland Harbor. Officers took her to the hospital, but were called back to the bridge less than 24 hours later when the same woman again was threatening to jump to her death.

It’s time to examine Maine laws so people can be forced to receive treatment for their illnesses before they hurt themselves or others, Craig said.

“This is a public safety issue. I’m not afraid to deal with it, and if it makes some people uncomfortable I’m OK with that,” Craig said. “It’s time for people to take responsibility.”

Craig, 53, became Portland’s 18th police chief in May after 28 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and 3½ years before that with Detroit police. He is the first black man to hold the job, overseeing a force of 158.

Eight months into the job, Craig said he is happy to see the city’s crime rate falling, and he believes a statistic-focused approach to crime fighting will help lower it further. He’s working to defuse tensions in the Sudanese community after a fatal police shooting, and to quell drunken rowdiness in the Old Port.

Internal adjustments — including changes in shift hours and a loosening of the department’s policies on wearing hats — have been embraced by the rank and file.

But it’s the large number of people with mental illness on city streets that most alarms Craig. People with mental health problems gravitate toward Portland because of the services that are available.

All too often, however, people with mental illness fail to get adequate treatment after police take them to a hospital or jail, he said. Police had contact with the woman who twice threatened to jump from the bridge nearly two dozen times this year, he said.

“The biggest crisis is and will continue to be dealing with the mental health crisis,” Craig said.

By law, people with mental illness can be held if they’re a danger to themselves or others or unable to care for themselves, said Carol Carothers, executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

But it’s true that many people with mental illness don’t receive the treatment they need and that the mental health system in Maine and nationally is in trouble, Carothers said.

With state budget cuts looming, it isn’t about to get any better.

“The chief needs to buckle his seat belt because they’re about to take about $100 million out of mental health spending in Maine, and that’s on top of the $48 million they took out of mental health spending last year,” she said.

Since his arrival from Los Angeles, the biggest surprise for Craig has been the amount of drunken rowdiness he has seen in the city’s bar-filled Old Port area late at night.

But he’s pleased with the city’s low crime rate. Violent crime is down 11 percent and overall crime is down about 2 percent this year through Dec. 20, he said.

The Police Department is making an effort to ease tensions with Portland’s Sudanese community after a fatal shooting of a 26-year-old Sudanese man last spring that sparked anger and unrest, Craig said. Maine’s attorney general has ruled that the officers fired in self-defense and that the shooting was legally justified.

A top priority in the coming year will be to address what he says is a growing gang problem in Portland. He knows gangs, having come from Los Angeles where he dealt with notorious gangs.

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