Far too often, law enforcement is called to handle mental health situations. Across the country, and in Maine, a growing number of 911 calls involve people dealing with mental health and substance use crises. As a result, far too many Americans who need mental health services end up in emergency rooms and jails instead.
With federal and state grants, law enforcement agencies are taking on this challenge by including mental health professionals in their work.
Recently, the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office was awarded a $750,000 grant to have a mental health clinician ride along with sheriff’s deputies and check in with people after their release from the Penobscot County Jail. It was the only recipient in Maine.
“Not only does this project look to better support individuals once they are incarcerated, it also intends to divert people from criminal justice system involvement by implementing a mental health specialty team of a seasoned patrol deputy and a licensed mental health clinician,” Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said.
Working with Mainers who have mental health diagnoses — before they are arrested, while they are in jail and after they are released — is vital. Ideally, these people can be diverted away from our criminal justice system, which is one focus on the grant.
Too often they are not.
As community mental health services remain insufficient, county jails have become de facto mental health facilities. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Bangor Daily News, more than a third of county jail inmates received medications to treat mental health. The survey found that 61 percent of inmates at the York County Jail were receiving such medications, the highest in the state.
Nearly 10 times as many Americans with severe psychiatric disease are in jails and prisons than are in hospitals, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
The Bangor Police Department has had its own program to include a mental health clinician on their calls for four years. Although the department has not quantified the program’s impact, the mental health liaisons have helped de-escalate situations and offered resources for officers and services to community members.
Other states and cities have also been pairing police with mental health personnel. Denver took the next step last year by launching a new program to send mental health professionals and paramedics on some emergency calls instead of police.
Although it is too early to know if the new program will decrease demands on Denver’s police department, the plain clothed professionals have been well received by the people they’ve helped, and it has allowed the police department to focus on more serious threats.
“It’s the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view on public safety,” Denver police Chief Paul Pazen told the Denver Post. “We want to meet people where they are and address those needs and address those needs outside of the criminal justice system.”
Such programs, including the new initiatives in Penobscot County, are promising. With the collection and tracking of data, they may show a new direction for other departments.
Penobscot and other counties must do a better job of fulfilling a state law that requires reporting on how to better serve inmates with mental health diagnosis. The jail’s belatedly formed board of visitors has so far not completed such an assessment. It must.
With inadequate community health services, we’ve asked law enforcement to take on many roles beyond the traditional scope of their work. It is not a substitute for a robust system of community services, but these agencies are to be commended for seeking new and better ways to help their communities.