State funding that paid for a substance-use counselor to ride along with Bangor police officers to better help people with addiction and mental health challenges whom cops regularly encounter dried up at the end of June.
But the fact that the Bangor Police Department will dig into its own budget to continue the ride-along program that puts two counselors from Acadia Hospital on the street with police shows how a cop’s job has transformed over time from that of a law enforcement officer to that of a mental health counselor, addiction treatment liaison and social worker.
In fact, Bangor police Chief Mark Hathaway said Monday night that his department even sees a need to expand the program and add a third counselor.
The necessity for mental health and addiction specialists to ride along with police speaks to the failures of social services systems in Maine and across the country. Mental health services are too hard to come by for those who need them. The state has failed to respond aggressively to the opioid crisis. And public assistance programs have become more and more stingy over time, depriving people in need of the resources they need to escape poverty and get their lives in order.
The appropriate response for someone struggling with mental illness or addiction generally isn’t an arrest. The specialists who accompany Bangor cops become resources to people who need help, and often connect them with the support they need to start addressing the problems in their lives.
There’s evidence that such collaborations among law enforcement and mental health counselors leads to fewer repeat calls to 911 from people who need mental health treatment, fewer arrests, more diversion from jail and fewer injuries sustained by police officers. All of those results lead to savings.
The ride-along program is effectively a safety net service that makes up for the inadequacy of a higher-level safety net that could prevent people with mental health challenges and addictions from encountering law enforcement so often in the first place.
But even this lower level of the safety net is under attack from Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.
Across the state, mental health crisis intervention teams respond to people experiencing mental health crises. They might be on the verge of committing suicide, or family members might be concerned for their well-being. The teams respond to life and death situations. In Augusta and Waterville, the state-funded teams support specialists who ride along with those cities’ police officers.
Yet a change in the funding mechanism passed down unilaterally by the LePage administration is threatening those teams’ very existence. Instead of guaranteeing each crisis intervention team a defined, contractually obligated amount for their services each year, the state now only pays the teams when they provide a billable service.
The problem is, not every service a crisis team provides neatly fits the guidelines that determine which services can be billed. Plus, the crisis teams need to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to someone in crisis. The down time between calls doesn’t meet the definition of a billable service. A ride-along program with local police doesn’t neatly fit it, either.
Collaborations among mental health counselor and police are proving vital given failures elsewhere in the social service system. Yet even these last-resort services are under threat.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.