OXFORD HILLS — The executive director of the Oxford County Mental Health Services said that she hopes to continue assisting rural police departments in the county respond safely to incidents involving mental or behavioral issues.
One way in which Stephanie LeBlanc hopes to assist police departments in the Oxford Hills is by offering a “virtual ride-along program,” where participating police departments call the OCMHS and request a crisis response worker to be included in calls that may involve mental health issues.
“We call it a ‘virtual ride-along’ because we don’t have the ability, like some of the larger cities in the state, to have a worker available to ride with police officers 24/7,” LeBlanc said.
While OCMHS has funded and offered crisis intervention training for police officers in the Oxford Hills, the relationship between the organization and the departments has not reached a point yet where crisis response workers are called in to provide assistance.
However, LeBlanc said that she hopes to get there eventually.
LeBlanc said that in the fall of 2016, she began working with National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine through the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative to “figure out how to get more law enforcement officers trained in crisis intervention.”
“We obtained some grants and were able to provide two separate trainings last year – one in the spring and one in December – where over 25 officers across the Oxford County were able to get training in crisis intervention,” LeBlanc said.
“In the larger cities, such as Portland or Lewiston/Auburn, there are crisis response workers and mental health workers that are able to ride alongside law enforcement, which allows them to effectively respond to mental health issues,” LeBlanc continued. “In the rural areas, it’s very difficult to mock that model.”
LeBlanc said that the Rumford office of the Oxford County Mental Health Services is located very close to the Rumford Police Department, and as a result, OCMHS has been able to institute the “virtual ride-along” program with the Rumford Police Department.
She said that OCMHS has “worked out a system where if the police get a call from dispatch that sounds like there’s definitely a mental health issue going on, we contact one of our crisis workers, and they jump in a police car or their own car and meet [Rumford] law enforcement on scene to assess the scene up front and see if we’re dealing with a mental or behavioral health issue.”
While there hasn’t been a large volume of calls by officers requesting crisis response workers or mental health workers, LeBlanc said that “a couple of times a month,” OCMHS is contacted by the Rumford Police Department requesting a OCMHS employee, “and we’ll join them for the call to play the first line of defense in talking with individuals and de-escalating the situation.”
LeBlanc said that she and Oxford County Mental Health Services are continuing to cultivate relationships with the police departments in the Oxford Hills.
“South Paris, Norway, Oxford and the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office have been very active in obtaining the training, and reaching out to us when necessary,” LeBlanc said.
Norway Police Chief Rob Federico said that the Norway Police Department hasn’t “gotten to the point where we call someone outside of our own agency.”
“Say that someone barricades themselves in their house and is threatening suicide,” Federico posited. “We don’t have anyone to call from the Oxford County Mental Health Services to intervene and help.”
Federico said that the OCMHS has provided three of his officers with crisis intervention training.
“The training was a two-week long course,” Federico explained. “It’s one more resource that we have to use.”
He said that he thinks the goal of all of the Oxford Hills police departments is to be able to use Oxford County Mental Health Services as a resource in responding to mental or behavioral health issues.
“Right now, we have a trained advocate to reach out to with the local sexual assault and domestic violence centers, but the mental health services are lagging behind a little,” Federico said.
Paris Police Chief Hartley “Skip” Mowatt said that four of his officers are CIT-certified.
“We need two more officers to take the course, and then all of our officers will be certified,” Mowatt added.
He said that while the Paris Police Department does not reach out to OCMHS for assistance, “we do sometimes contact Stephens Memorial Hospital for an evaluation if we suspect someone has a mental health issue.”
LeBlanc said that she wants to be able to build an “open and collaborative partnership” between OCMHS and the local police departments.
“Our overarching goal and strategy is to address community behavioral health crisis’ in a time effective and trauma-informed manner,” LeBlanc said. “It’s about building trust and support with the local law enforcement and ensuring open communication.”