Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck

On Feb. 1, Oliver Bradeen began work as the Portland Police Department’s substance abuse disorder liaison, a position created to build connections between treatment groups, police and individuals the patrol officers so often find struggling with drug problems.

As Portland police Chief Michael Sauschuck recalled, Bradeen didn’t have the luxury of easing into his new job.

Soon after Bradeen started up, the department got a call from a local agency expressing concern about someone struggling with a substance use disorder. Later that night, a patrol officer encountered that same person and called Bradeen for help, the chief said.

“From there, Oliver reaches out to that individual. He makes contact with a detox facility and gets him connected there, and then gets him into a sober home after detox. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened before this program,” Sauschuck said. “I can’t guarantee that this individual won’t ever relapse or anything like that, but I can guarantee that this guy is safer today than he was yesterday, and that’s a start.”

The goal of the department’s new Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program is to help put more people battling substance use disorders in counseling or treatment programs than in jail. It’s modeled in part after the department’s longstanding mental health co-responder program, in which trained civilian mental health experts are embedded alongside officers responding to cases in which mental illness is considered a factor.

“The police officer is walking in the door with a civilian subject matter expert,” the chief said. “We go in together as a team.”

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Portland, like many places around Maine, has in recent years faced a troubling increase in drug overdoses, particularly cases involving opioids like heroin. Attorney General Janet Mills warned in late December that 2015 was expected to break the state’s record for drug overdose deaths, set just a year earlier in 2014 at 208.

More than 40 percent of the drug overdose deaths in 2015 were caused by heroin, and more than 30 percent were due to some form of fentanyl, a powerful opioid often mixed with heroin, according to Mills’ office.

Police obviously have an obligation to protect public and personal safety when necessary, but the team’s first priority is to get the person in question help, not make an arrest, Sauschuck said. The Council of State Governments and U.S. Department of Justice have designated Portland as one of the six police departments nationwide as an official “learning site” for other law enforcement agencies seeking better approaches to deal with individuals battling mental illnesses.

“We had a model that was effective — we just needed to branch out and use that for substance abuse issues as well,” the chief said.

Before coming to his new position, Bradeen served as the police liaison for the Opportunity Alliance, a wide-ranging local service provider whose programs included mental health programs and crisis intervention, so he was fortunately well networked and could hit the ground running on Feb. 1. Sauschuck said Bradeen works with local agencies such as the Portland Recovery Community Center and Milestone Foundation, which provides a continuum of services running from an overnight shelter to a detoxification facility through residential treatment and even after-care programs.

Bradeen’s position is paid for through asset forfeiture money seized from drug dealers.

Asked if the program is expected to save tax payers’ dollars, through reducing recidivism rates, jail stays or emergency room visits, Sauschuck paused.

“I would start by saying we’re trying to save lives. The reason we’re doing this is that people are dying across the state every day, and the way that we’d been doing it forever simply doesn’t work. If we can do our jobs better and get people in contact with services that save their lives, we need to do that. And on top of that, if we can decrease recidivism and those other things, great,” he said. “We just have to look at our overall system and say, ‘What are we doing here?’

“We know there are people in our communities who are suffering every day. If we can get some of the people who are repeat clients of ours back into contact with their counselors or into a medical appointment that can help get them help or hospitalized, those are important victories,” Sauschuck continued. “Our goal overall is to save lives. One success is a big deal.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.