The constant narrative from the newsroom police scanner reveals a lot of sad stories. A lot of things most people would rather not know about the human condition.

Someone is in the garage with a shotgun, threatening suicide. Another person has ingested rubbing alcohol, rubbed it all over his body and is threatening to light himself on fire.

Even the more mundane-seeming incidents: parents with “out of control” kids, a woman who was causing a disturbance who now wants to walk down the hallway and be left alone for a few minutes to gather her thoughts.

It’s a reminder that much of what the police do isn’t a matter of just dealing with bad guys doing bad things, but the more complicated issues surrounding people, human behavior and mental health.

“It’s all about communicating,” Waterville police Chief Joe Massey said Wednesday morning.

When Massey first became a police officer, in 1978, “we had two ways of dealing with people who had mental health issues.”

One, he said, was to ignore them and just hope they’d go home. The other was to arrest them.

That response evolved through the 1980s and early ’90s into more understanding of how to deal with people who had issues that went beyond simple criminal activity.

But it wasn’t until 1996 that Waterville was pushed — tragically — into addressing the problem head-on.

In January 1996, Mark Bechard killed two nuns at Blessed Sacrament Church, beating them with a statue and stabbing them. He injured two others.

Bechard was committed to the state mental hospital, diagnosed as acutely psychotic and with schizoaffective disorder. He was released to a group home in 2012, and in May 2013 he was granted unsupervised time in public against the objections of Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney.

In response to the killings in 1996, the city created the Midnight Team.

“We realized we needed to do better,” Massey said.

That involved more training, largely focusing on communication and crisis management, as well as involving mental health workers with responses to people who may be having a crisis.

That program was the first in the state, a model for other communities.

The city Police Department’s strategy has continued to evolve since then, constantly refining training for officers, particularly young, inexperienced ones right out of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. In a few months, the department hopes to roll out an even more advanced training program that will involve simulated situations in which officers can put into practice what they’ve learned in the class.

Rather than arresting people, Massey said, it’s all about de-escalating the situation, getting people their meds. Communicating. Getting them help.

“Jail is not the place for them to be,” he said.

When police officers deal with someone who has mental health issues, it’s not in a clinical setting. It’s out on the street. “Their darkest moment,” as Massey says.

The Police Department is even hosting a golf tournament, on Oct. 12, to raise money for High Hopes Clubhouse, which helps people with mental challenges get jobs and be active members of the community. Massey said the response from sponsors and the community has been great. “I think we’re going to raise a significant amount of money,” he said.

Why does this all matter, aside from it being an interesting insight into how the police operate?

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the focuses of the week is for people to “be mindful” of those with mental health issues.

It’s easy for us to divide people into categories. It’s human nature. That’s them, this is us.

But the truth about mental health issues is that people all around you have them.

Many people are able to deal with the world around them in an adult and responsible way. Their upbringing, their circumstances, access to education and insurance, all sorts of facts separate those with mental challenges who are sitting beside you at work from those we’re hearing about on the police scanner. Or reading about in the newspaper.

It’d be great to be aware of that all the time, but we’ve all got a lot on our minds.

But next week is a reminder, one week out of the year to poke us, that human beings are human beings.

This doesn’t excuse criminal behavior, but unless we recognize that fact, we’ll keep filling jails, holding cells and police blotters with people who need to be dealt with in a more mindful way.

It took a horrific tragedy for the Waterville Police Department to make that a priority. All the rest of us need is a reminder once in a while.

Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]. Twitter: @mmilliken47, Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month. To read previous Kennebec Tales go to centralmaine.com.


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