Bangor is moving toward letting its police department charge fees to homeless shelters and group homes that call 911 for reasons that aren’t deemed to be emergencies after Bangor’s police chief reported an increase in non-emergency calls.
In one case Chief Mark Hathaway recently recounted, a resident at one facility called 911 to report that he was going to hurt someone because he was angry about being served a new flavor of juice. When police arrived, they found that the resident wasn’t agitated and that a staff person should have made an effort to defuse the situation or call off the police response.
“I don’t think that any of you think that we should be responding to the juice box call, but we are,” Hathaway said at a Sept. 26 public forum on the proposal. “We’re telling people to put the remote down, [to follow] kitchen rules, house rules, put your shoes on, over and over and over. We have to stop.”
The City Council will vote on the proposal next Wednesday after a council committee endorsed it earlier this week.
But it’s hard to tell how much of a spike there really has been for those types of calls. While the department provided data showing that it has more frequently visited the location of a youth homeless shelter since 2017, it has not been able to filter out how many of those calls were for non-emergency reasons or how many the shelter specifically made. The police department said it has not assembled similar data about calls from group homes, of which there are dozens across the city.
Social services agencies that would be affected by the fee proposal have raised some questions and concerns about it, but they have agreed that police should not be burdened by unnecessary calls and said they are working to reduce their frequency. The leader of an agency that runs group homes in and around Bangor, OHI Maine, said if there has been an increase in calls to police, it stems at least in part from a larger scaling back of state resources for people with intellectual disabilities over the last few years.
Bangor police have said their goal is not for the proposed fees to serve as a new revenue source. Rather, they want a new deterrent as they work with the organizations to cut back on non-emergency calls that tie up officers who could otherwise be out responding to traffic violations, drug offenses or other threats to public safety.
“I hope to never invoice you for anything,” Hathaway said during the Sept. 26 forum. “I think just the conversation has made a huge change. The calls have all but stopped.” He added, “I am concerned that six months from now, they may sneak back up.”
Group homes are generally licensed by the state to house people with intellectual disabilities. The shelters that Hathaway mentioned — so-called “low barrier” homeless shelters — offer temporary housing and generally don’t have stringent admission criteria, such as a requirement that clients abstain from drugs and alcohol.
In a meeting with city councilors last month, Hathaway estimated that officers respond to between 175 and 200 non-emergency calls from group homes every year, but the department didn’t provide data on the number of calls when the BDN asked for it through a public records request.
The only increase that the department did demonstrate is in the total number of calls it receives from 136 Union Street, the location of the Shaw House, an emergency youth homeless shelter. The department said it responded to 59 calls involving that address in 2017, then 140 in 2018. This year, police had received 190 calls involving that address by the end of September — already more than double the 2017 total.
The department has not been able to show how many of those calls were for non-emergency reasons. The numbers also include calls from people who happened to mention the shelter’s address, perhaps because they were reporting someone standing outside it.
The Shaw House’s parent agency, Community Care, has not taken a position on the proposal, but its leaders said they are working with police to cut back on unnecessary calls. For example, some calls actually concerned adults who were near the building, not shelter residents. Police have now helped the group take out no-trespass orders against some of those adults.
“I’ve come to a better understanding of what police view as calls that should be made and what shouldn’t be made,” said David McCluskey, Community Care’s executive director. “We’re reviewing the data and looking where we can make changes. A lot of the changes have made a dramatic drop in any police involvement.”
The Bangor Police Department’s proposal would allow the city to charge facilities that make more than three calls annually that “go beyond those normally and reasonably expected in the course of police duties.” The fees would be $31 per responding officer for between four and eight calls, then $155 per officer for additional calls.
Hathaway has stressed that group homes and shelters should not hesitate to report real emergencies.
Bonnie-Jean Brooks, the president and CEO of OHI Maine, said she generally agrees that group home workers should not unnecessarily call police, although she has raised some questions about how the police department’s proposal will be implemented.
She also said that reducing group homes’ reliance on police will take more than just a new fee. For one thing, group home operators may need to hire more direct care staff to take some of the burden off the 911 system, but it’s hard to recruit those workers because Medicaid rates only allow group homes to offer minimum wage. OHI currently has 50 openings for direct care workers, which has forced existing staff to work long hours of overtime, according to Brooks.
She also said the state will need to restore its system of crisis response services that help group homes handle especially difficult clients.
The state shed about two-thirds of its beds for people with intellectual disabilities who are in crisis in 2017. Brooks said she is encouraged that Gov. Janet Mills’ administration has been restoring those beds. Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency also plans to hire eight crisis workers whose responsibilities include training group home workers on handling crises without involving police.
It will take time for those initiatives to make a difference, Brooks said.