AUGUSTA, Maine — In the last year, Capitol Police have been called to the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center 242 times – 83 times for assault complaints, according to Chief Russell Gauvin.

The Capitol Police, a division of the Maine Department of Public Safety, are tasked with providing police coverage for the state owned facilities in Augusta including the State House and its grounds.

They are also the primary agency to respond to the state’s 92-bed psychiatric hospital, which houses the state’s forensic patients – those sent to the facility for mental health treatment or evaluation by the criminal justice system, jails or prisons.

Gauvin said Wednesday the response to Riverview, which is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, over the last year was a dramatic increase from the prior year when his officers responded to 186 calls at the facility including 25 assault complaints.

While the calls have steadily increased, in part due to an increasing population of patients sent to the facility from the courts and jails, Gauvin’s resources have been reduced from 13 full-time officers in 1999 to six today.

“We are not staffed sufficiently for that,” Gauvin said. “We’ve been reduced significantly over the years but we do what we can and we do respond.”

He said calls to Riverview including the increase in assault complaints make up about 80 to 85 percent of his agency’s criminal work. “They make up the majority of our calls, most of the rest of what we do is mostly preventative stuff like crowd control and so forth.”

He also said that about 85 percent of the assault calls involve patients attacking health care staff at the facility and not other patients.

Data from the City of Augusta’s Department of Public Safety shows city police, which responds to Riverview as backup or in the hours when the Capitol Police are off-duty, responded to the hospital 44 times in 2012 and 77 times in 2011.

Meanwhile, the number of injuries to hospital workers attributed to patients increased from 14 in 2011 to 23 in 2012, according to DHHS data.

But the numbers also show a decrease from 2009 and 2010 when there were respectively, 33 and 35 staff injuries attributed to patients.

So far, in 2013 only 3 injuries have been attributed to patients.

The Legislature, during a special session Thursday, is expected to address issues at the hospital including a recent inspection of the facility by the federal Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services that found shortcomings at the facility that were jeopardizing the safety of patients and staff.

That review came after a worker at the hospital was attacked and seriously injured by a patient who punched her repeatedly and stabbed her with a pen. The patient, who had previously attacked and seriously wounded an employee at the hospital in 2006, was charged with aggravated assault.

Among other issues identified by CMS was the use of Tasers and handcuffs by corrections officers assigned to a ward of the hospital, the Lower Saco Unit, that houses the most violent patients.

Capitol Police also used a Taser at the facility in July after being called to respond there to a patient who was uncontrollable. It was the first time a Capitol Police officer used a Taser in the line of duty, Gauvin confirmed Wednesday.

The federal government, which provides about 50 percent of the funding for Riverview has said it will cut $20 million from the facility if an adequate plan to address the shortcomings – outlined in a 93-page report issued in June – is not approved by the CMS by Sept. 2.

Lawmakers have met twice in the last two weeks to discuss the issue and Tuesday an ad-hoc committee met with a group of stakeholders including Department of Corrections and Riverview staff as well as civil rights advocates and advocates for the mentally ill.

On the table is a bill, LD 1515, offered by Gov. Paul LePage, that would allow some of those forensic patients now at Riverview or those that would be sent there in the future from county jails or other state prison facilities to be housed at mental health unit at the state prison in Warren.

That proposal, which adds about $4.5 million to the state’s 2-year budget, would depend on a private contractor to provide mental health services to individuals found incompetent to stand trail or those who are being evaluated for psychological competency.

The proposed 32-bed facility would also be available to provide mental health services to about 10 prison inmates as well, according to Joe Fitzpatrick, the clinical director for the Department of Corrections.

Fitzpatrick also told an ad-hoc committee of lawmakers Tuesday the prison facility would not be licensed hospital and would not be certified to the same level of care as Riverview although those working at the facility would have the same mental health certifications and training.

Civil rights advocates balked at the notion Tuesday saying sending those who have not been convicted of a crime to prison for mental health treatment was likely unconstitutional.

Others also noted that the plan would only free up a small number of beds at Riverview as those who have been found not criminally responsible for their crimes by a court would remain at the Augusta facility.

Wednesday Zach Heiden, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maine, was again urging lawmakers to spend the money on making improvements and changes at Riverview instead of using it to bolster mental health treatment capacity within the state prison system.

“Simply put, LD 1515 is the wrong answer to the wrong question: it is the wrong answer because the Maine State Prison should not be considered a mental hospital,” Heiden wrote in a letter to legislative leaders. “It is the wrong question because the legislature should be devoting its attention, and its resources, to solving the staffing and management problems that have brought Riverview Psychiatric Hospital to the brink of losing $20 million in federal funding.”

The bill Thursday goes before the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee first, where it may be amended before going to the House of Representatives for a vote.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the House chair of the committee said earlier in the week the issues at Riverview were being taken very seriously by the Legislature.

She said she hoped lawmakers could amend the bill before them to address those issues especially overcrowding combined with inadequate staffing that was creating an unsafe environment for both patients and staff.

LD 1515 does not address the most overarching problems at Riverview, she said.

“It addresses part of the problem but it certainly does not address the entire problem,” she said. “And we need to act quickly to start to address the larger problem because the safety of the staff and the patients is at stake.”

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.