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EDITORIAL: Investments in mental health and addiction treatment can help police shortage

Bangor Daily News - 3/27/2018

March 27--The Portland Police Department was in the news last week after it said it would consider hiring non-citizens and recent marijuana users to fill vacancies in the state's largest municipal police force. It was the latest announcement from a police department struggling to hire officers.

The department has also tapped a current officer to work as a full-time recruiter and offers a $10,000 signing bonus. Still, it currently has 16 vacancies.

This is a problem not just for Portland or Maine but the country in general. Nearly four in five departments nationally reported that a shortage of qualified candidates has made filling vacancies difficult, a 2010 RAND study found.

There are currently 32 job listings on the state's Criminal Justice Academy jobs website. Some departments are seeking multiple officers and some posting have been online since last summer.

Lower standards and financial incentives may help Portland and other cities hire new officers, but a fundamental problem remains unaddressed. Law enforcement officers and other first responders have become de facto mental health counselors and substance abuse treatment providers.

As the state has cut back on resources dedicated to substance abuse disorder and mental health treatment, these problems have not gone away. Instead, they have been passed along to law enforcement and corrections officials.

According to data from the Maine Department of Corrections' contracted medical provider, Correct Care Solutions, about 48 percent of juveniles and 34 percent of adult inmates were prescribed psychiatric medications in 2015. The numbers are much higher in some county jails, according to a survey conducted by the Bangor Daily News. The late summer 2015 survey found that 61 percent of inmates at the York County Jail were receiving such medications.

"My question is: Is that what corrections is supposed to be about?" Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton asked in 2016. "Is that really how we should be treating people with mental illness and substance abuse? To me, this is really an expensive way to do it."

It also takes a personal toll. Everyday, his officers work with people in crisis, whether it be addiction, homelessness or mental health issues, or all three, Portland police Chief Michael Sauschuck says.

"The job itself is a powerful opportunity to make a difference ... that can last a lifetime," he said. But, it can also be difficult to deal with the same challenges, and often the same people, day after day.

Fixing what he terms the "upstream" failures -- not enough beds in mental health facilities, too few medical providers offering medication-assisted treatment -- will go a long way toward restoring police work to a better balance of community building and protection.

Especially when the economy is good, young men and women may have a variety of job and career options. Even if they are interested in police work, making the same, or more, money in a job that has regular hours, less danger and less negativity becomes more attractive.

In 2017, new officers in Portland averaged an annual salary of $54,000 plus benefits, and the city recently agreed to union contracts that will give officers a 10 percent raise over the next three years.

Pay raises may help, but if lawmakers want to make sure that Maine's police departments have the officers they need, they should redouble their work to provide better access to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

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