The Bangor City Council has granted the city’s police department the authority to charge fees to homeless shelters and group homes that call 911 with requests that aren’t deemed emergencies.
The council approved the change Monday night in a unanimous, 8-0 vote. It will allow the Bangor Police Department to levy fees on 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.
Chief Mark Hathaway has said that those non-emergency calls have become more common and can tie up officers who could be out investigating traffic violations, drug trafficking and other threats to public safety.
Group homes are generally licensed by the state to house people with intellectual disabilities. The so-called “low barrier” shelters offer temporary housing and generally don’t have stringent admission criteria, such as a requirement that clients abstain from drugs and alcohol.
Hathaway proposed the fees so the police department could have an extra deterrent as it works with those facilities to cut down on non-emergency calls — some of which have been requests to tell residents to follow kitchen rules, put down a TV remote or put their shoes on, according to Hathaway.
Hathaway said police plan to keep meeting with those agencies as they implement the fee policy. “We’re going to provide training to their staff, and they’re going to provide training to our staff,” he said.
Two people, including Penobscot County Treasurer John Hiatt, spoke against the proposal Monday night. Hiatt, who has been public about his autism, said that he used to live in a group home. He argued that agencies serving people with intellectual disabilities are already underfunded by MaineCare and that their staff should not perceive an additional barrier to seeking help when they worry that a situation could become violent.
“I see this as totally wrong,” Hiatt said. “Let’s say, yeah, a cop is called for a fight over juice. With group homes underfunded, that could easily escalate.”
Bangor resident Shannon Denbow, who has worked in a homeless shelter, said that those places can also be understaffed and that workers may not be able to respond to some situations that police classify as non-emergencies, but that could escalate to violence.
In response, Hathaway said police would still respond to any serious threats or acts of violence. Based on his conversations with group home and shelter staff, he said he was confident they could discern between necessary and unnecessary calls.
Several councilors echoed those points. Councilor Clare Davitt attended a public forum in September about the change at the offices of OHI Maine, which runs group homes in the Bangor region.
While Davitt initially felt “uncomfortable” with the proposal, she said that she “felt really reassured” by the discussion at that forum.
“I think it’s worked really well for the fire department,” she said, referring to a 2016 policy that lets the Bangor Fire Department charge for some nonmedical calls, such as helping people with mobility challenges move around their home. “At no point is there a, ‘Don’t call police if there is an emergency.’ That’s never been said.”
The fire department has never charged any fees, and the calls have stopped, according to Hathaway.
It’s unclear how dramatically the non-emergency calls have risen in Bangor. The Bangor Police Department has only provided data showing that the overall number of calls to the address of the Shaw House, a youth homeless shelter at 136 Union St., has more than doubled over the last three years — from 59 in 2017 to 140 in 2018 and 190 in the first nine months of this year.
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.
Hathaway has also estimated that officers respond to between 175 and 200 non-emergency calls from group homes every year.