For those who need help: Call the Maine Suicide Prevention Program’s toll-free crisis hotline at 1-888-568-1112 or nationwide at 1-800-273-TALK, or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
A Bridgton man threatened to shoot anyone who came to his house. A man from Lyman experienced paranoid delusions and had 13 guns at home. A Waterville man wanted to kill himself.
These are three scenarios out of a total of 82 over the last three years where Maine’s new “yellow flag” law worked to temporarily take weapons away from people who were a threat to themselves or others.
While experts have questioned why police did not rely on the yellow flag law to take away the guns owned by Robert R. Card II, who was delusional and paranoid before he killed 18 people in Lewiston on Oct. 25, the law has been working for police who have invoked it.
After the law first became effective on July 1, 2020, police cautioned that using it would be time-consuming and resource intensive, as it would require involving police, medical professionals and the court system and came with no extra funding.
But while there may have been a learning curve, four police chiefs in Maine who have relied on the yellow flag law said they are finding the process can work well and is worth the time it takes to get people a mental health evaluation and legally collect their weapons.
“It’s not a matter of checking a few boxes and filling out a form,” said Brewer Police Chief Jason Moffitt, whose department has invoked the yellow flag law three times. “These are cases that demand attention when they happen.”
Maine’s yellow flag law is a more limited version of “red flag” laws in other states. Red flag laws allow not just police but family members to petition courts to confiscate guns and other dangerous weapons from people found to be dangerous.
Under Maine’s yellow flag law, the process starts when law enforcement officers take people into protective custody — which police can do if they have probable cause to believe people are mentally ill and, because of their condition, pose a likelihood of serious harm.
From there police arrange a mental health evaluation at a local hospital or through telehealth. For about a year, Spurwink has provided a service to make a health professional available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for evaluations to determine if people are a danger.
If the medical practitioner agrees someone should not have weapons, then the matter goes before a judge within 14 days to make a final decision. People can be prohibited from buying or owning weapons for up to a year under the law.
Most police interactions with people experiencing mental illness don’t end in a yellow flag restriction, said Hampden Police Chief Chris Bailey, whose agency has gone through the process once. Situations where people with mental illnesses have weapons and are dangerous are not common.
Hannah Langley, senior clinical director of adult education for NAMI Maine, agreed, saying the vast majority of mental health calls don’t involve weapons.
While the law has helped, it is difficult to measure harm that didn’t happen.
“We don’t know how many tragedies [Maine has] averted by using this law,” Bailey said. “There’s never a datapoint about what didn’t happen because of something you did.”
The Sanford Police Department has successfully invoked the yellow flag law seven times, which is the second greatest number of times a police force has used the law, according to data compiled by the Maine attorney general’s office. Maine’s largest police force, the Maine State Police, has used the law eight times.
That’s likely because of the Sanford department’s mental health unit, which has two clinicians and two officers, Chief Craig Andersen said. About 300 calls a month are routed to the unit, instead of to patrol officers, he said.
The yellow flag process often takes two to six hours, he said. The timing has depended on how busy the hospital is and when a judge can be reached. In other instances, police spend time trying to find someone who is avoiding police, which prevents them from starting the yellow flag process, Andersen said.
“There have been instances where we believe a yellow flag would be in place based on the information that we’ve received, but we were never able to make contact with the actual person,” he said.
Police try to err on the side of caution, Moffitt said.
“If there was a case that we thought we may lose in front of a judge, we still may present that anyways,” he said.
After a judge approves the temporary confiscation of people’s weapons, police departments hold them until the order expires or is lifted. Hampden police store the guns in their evidence rooms, Bailey said.
When the yellow flag law was enacted, officers had to go through a mandatory 1½-hour training, Maine Department of Public Safety spokesperson Shannon Moss said.
About 110 officers attended a voluntary three-hour online training in 2023 about the yellow flag law, which will be offered again in 2024, Moss said.
Some police departments, such as those in Brewer and Sanford, have provided additional in-house training for officers.
In Sanford, police have created checklists, made sure documents could be e-signed on an iPad and worked to streamline the process, Andersen said. When agencies across the state reached out, the department shared its processes to help, he said.
While the yellow flag law doesn’t require that people seek mental health help, police said more mental health resources are needed in communities across Maine.
Bailey would like to see more mobile crisis response units, he said. The Bar Harbor Police Department recently added a full-time mental health liaison to avoid criminalizing mental illness, said David Kerns, the interim police chief; it could use three more full-time people.
And Maeghan Maloney, the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said Maine’s involuntary commitment process “does not function” when there are no available beds for people needing a psychiatric hospital.
See which police departments in Maine have used the yellow flag law in this spreadsheet.