BELFAST, Maine — Deputies responding to 911 calls in Waldo County sometimes find themselves mediating property line disputes or child custody battles, mental health crises and family fights.
Once they even responded to a call from people who had a bat in their house.
In those situations, there’s often no crime — but a uniformed officer showing up in a patrol car with a gun might not make things better.
“People will call with some pretty strange requests. But they’re looking for help,” Chief Deputy Jason Trundy said. “Just imagine if you were in a mental health crisis, and I show up with a gun and a badge and a duty belt and handcuffs.”
There is a wide range of social issues outside the realm of what law enforcement is trained to deal with, he said.
That’s why the department relies on Rob Porter, Waldo County’s first-ever community liaison. Porter, 56, is not a police officer. He doesn’t wear a uniform or carry a gun. But what he brings to the role is important: training in mental health, substance abuse and the willingness to listen.
“I have always had faith in my ability to deescalate and to be able to communicate with someone,” said Porter, who’s been in the position for about a year. “For me, it’s basically just about listening. To let them have the space to go through what they’re going through and to be attentive.”
That approach worked for an out-of-state woman who recently moved alone to an off-grid homestead in rural Waldo County, perhaps without fully understanding the lifestyle.
“I don’t think she thought it all the way through, being able to handle the isolation part of it,” Porter said.
After connecting with Porter, he traveled to the woman’s “way-off-the-beaten-path” home to help start her generator.
Together, they fixed the problem, and Porter encouraged her to follow up with community organizations to alleviate some of her isolation.
“The look on her face was a lot of relief and a little bit of gratitude,” he said. “But mostly relief that she was going to be OK.”
Another time, Porter responded to a call about a man who had barricaded himself in a shed on his parents’ property.
“He was going through a psychotic episode,” he said. “The first time I went out, he didn’t want anything to do with anybody. The second time I went out, we were able to have a conversation, get him to go to the [emergency room] and get him evaluated.”
The man, who had stopped taking his medication, agreed to start again. Porter has talked to him since, and he’s been doing better.
In some situations a uniformed police officer might not make things better, according to the chief deputy. For some who have had difficult experiences with law enforcement officers, a uniform can trigger or escalate a situation.
“That family was thrilled that there was someone there with experience and training who could help him, but not wearing the uniform and the badge, which could make it worse,” Trundy said.
Still, he knows that the new position is not a panacea.
“At the end of the day, [Porter] can offer up a lot of resources and help. But if somebody’s not willing, he doesn’t have any more ability to force someone to get help and treatment that anybody else does. But for someone who’s looking for treatment or help or guidance, he can be a great resource.”
Porter brings something unique to the role, too. For decades, he was often on the other side of the law. He was in and out of the Maine Department of Corrections for 30 years, he said, before he was finally able to get off the criminal justice merry-go-round.
In 2012, he graduated from the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast, a residential facility designed to give incarcerated men the skills and experience they need to live in their communities after transitioning out of the correctional system. The center, a partner to the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, is located next door to it.
Now, Porter’s back — but this time he’s working for the department.
Part of the reason it’s a good fit is his own background, he said.
“Having that lived experience, I think it plays a lot into it,” Porter said. “I think it allows me to meet a lot of people truly where they’re at, and understand that I’ve been in similar circumstances before. Without having that judgement.”
Law enforcement reform was a rallying cry of 2020, as a shocked nation reacted to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.
For Trundy, having a community liaison work with the sheriff’s office is a step in the right direction.
“It’s something I think this profession has needed for a long time,” he said. “I don’t see it as the end of this journey. I see it as the start of something: how law enforcement responds to certain calls. How we interact with people in our community. For us, this position is really the start of how we begin to do that.”
And doing that will require creating partnerships with other agencies that have different types of expertise, as well as access to grant funding opportunities.
For the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, creating the new position became financially possible after Oct. 2019, when Penobscot Community Healthcare, the state’s largest federally qualified health center, was awarded a $1 million grant to help combat the opioid crisis in Waldo County.
Part of that money has been used to fund the community liaison position, which is contracted through Volunteers of America, the nonprofit that runs the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast.
“This year, we’ve really tailored a lot of the position’s work to calls with mental illness and substance abuse,” Trundy said. “It’s the start of a conversation about what this type of civilian position can do for us.”
Waldo County isn’t the first law enforcement agency in the state to incorporate mental health and substance abuse experts to its policing strategy. For 20 years, the Portland Police Department has had a Behavioral Health Response Program, which is a nationally recognized pilot program that inspired Trundy and others.
“Their program was really what got our wheels turning,” he said. “It’s what we wanted to model.”
In addition, the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office just received a grant to have a mental health specialist ride along with sheriff’s deputies and check in on people after their release from Penobscot County Jail.
In Waldo County, the program has gone so well that the sheriff’s office has just budgeted for a full-time community liaison. Porter will shift to that position, and the sheriff’s office and Volunteers of America will seek a part-time person to fill the grant-funded position.
“It is so new that we have the opportunity to write the story on how we want to see it go, and we have a correctional partner that is very supportive and innovative,” Robyn Goff, Volunteers of America program manager at the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, said. “I think Waldo County really is special, and there’s some magic happening.”
Porter said that the possibilities feel exciting to him.
“This isn’t about getting people arrested and doing time,” he said.
Instead, it’s a chance to build community and take care of the people in it..
“If you feel that you belong to a community, you’re less likely to cause harm to it,” he said. “We’re creating something that I’ve seen as a need for a long time.”