Bangor will soon launch a program to send social workers to welfare calls instead of patrol officers to minimize interactions between law enforcement and people in a mental health crisis.

The city granted the Bangor Police Department $285,000 in its annual budget this year to fund the Bangor Community Assistance team. Four positions will soon be advertised for hiring, City Manager Debbie Laurie said.

The team would respond to calls about people struggling with a mental health crisis, homeless, disorientation or dealing with other circumstances that concerned the community but didn’t endanger it, according to a copy of the program request Laurie provided.

Members would de-escalate, calm and refer the people they encounter to services, the program description said, with an option to call a police officer or the department’s mental health community liaison for backup.

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Mental health has played a role in at least two deadly encounters between Mainers and police this year, leading the state agency that reviews the use of deadly force by police to advise law enforcement to develop a plan for responding to people in mental crisis.

Topsham police Officer Mathew Bowers fatally shot Kourtney Sherwood in February, after police were called because she had made homicidal and suicidal threats while parked next to the Merrymeeting Bridge. An unidentified man also shot himself during a traffic stop in Saco in April.

Presque Isle police Officer Tyler Cote also fatally shot Jacob Poitraw in June, after police said the 25-year-old man had threatened others and led officers on a car chase throughout the Aroostook County city.

Poitraw had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts for years and unsuccessfully sought treatment, his mother, Renee Duarte, told the Bangor Daily News.

Hannah Longley, the senior clinical director of community programs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Maine chapter, said the program would help reduce the stigma around mental health crises by reframing them as a medical condition.

She compared mental health workers to specialists, like paramedics who appear when someone calls for 911 to deal with a heart attack.

“Having a mental health worker who’s available and able to engage and able to respond, whenever possible, is by far a much better option than having law enforcement respond,” Longley said.

The pandemic aggravated an already-existing shortage of psychiatrists and available mental health services in Maine, straining emergency rooms and adding to waiting lists for services.

“COVID has just exacerbated this,” Longley said. “And as a result, law enforcement has carried the brunt of the burden of really responding in the community to individuals who are acutely ill and in need of support.”

A Bangor Police Department spokesperson referred a request for comment back to Laurie.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.