The Waterville Police Department is seeking $12,000 from a man who threatened to kill himself outside the city’s police department building in early December. Longstanding and worsening financial problems had led Gary Cross to despair and the police department parking lot, armed with a gun. A standoff with police lasted eight hours.
The department is seeking to charge Cross for the manpower and equipment used to defuse the situation. But there are several problems with the department seeking payment.
Cross had no say in how many agencies, personnel and vehicles responded. More fundamentally, taxpayers fund emergency services so they are there to aid people in times of need. For some, those times of need are after a car crash or house fire. For others, those times come when someone needs to escape a violent partner or experiences a mental health crisis.
Taxpayers support police, fire and emergency medical services so they are ready and able to respond as needed. When those agencies seek reimbursement from those who receive services, that changes their role and relationship with the communities they serve.
The use of these fees peaked in 2010 as the recession led to budget cuts and emergency response agencies looked to alternate sources of revenue. As the economy improved — and outrage over these fees grew — their use declined. More than a dozen states have outlawed or limited so-called accident response fees.
“Charging for emergency responses is bad public policy,” Robert Passmore, a vice president at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said. His association has long been critical of this “double taxation.”
Communities that charge typically do so for traffic accidents and fire department responses. Passmore had never heard of a police department seeking money for resolving a mental health crisis.
In an interview with MPBN that aired Jan. 4, Cross was open and contrite about what happened on Dec. 7. Cross and his wife had lost their savings during the financial crisis, then he lost his job. After he received a letter from the bank concerning an expiring line of credit, he thought there was no way forward. His life insurance policy was the only way his wife could get by, he concluded.
So he wrote a note to his family and drove away from his home in Troy with a gun and two bullets. He wanted to be away from his hometown so his wife wouldn’t see daily reminders of where he died. He first went to a Waterville hospital so medical professionals, not a passer-by, would find his body.
It was too crowded, so he went to the police station. He called 911 and hung up before getting out of the truck with his gun. He was soon surrounded by police. Streets were blocked off. State police negotiators spoke with Cross for hours.
“It took a long time because I just couldn’t see my way clear,” Cross, 58, told MPBN.
He finally surrendered to police — a success for their negotiators. The day after Christmas he received a court summons for creating a police standoff and told he owed $12,000 in restitution. He also was fined $250. A court will decide whether and how much he must pay.
Nationally, suicide rates among middle-aged men rose dramatically from 1999 to 2010. Men aged 45 to 54 have the highest suicide rate in the state, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In men, unemployment is a risk factor in suicide, Greg Marley, clinical director for the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said in 2014.
Instead of further penalize men such as Cross, pushing them into even more dire financial straits, police departments and others should work to direct them to the help and support they need to work through problems, financial and otherwise.
To reach a suicide prevention hot line, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.