When Portland Police Officers respond to an overdose, they have one thing on their minds: saving a life. A recent editorial by the Press Herald editorial board, on the expansion of Maine’s Good Samaritan law (Our View, April 27), could leave a reader with the impression that officers in Maine are prioritizing arrests at the scene of an overdose over life-saving procedures. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Portland paramedics use Narcan to revive a woman after getting a report of a heroin overdose in 2015. Of the 521 overdoses to which the Portland Police Department responded between Jan. 1, 2021, and April 24, 2022, “only two cases resulted in someone being charged with a crime,” Interim Chief F. Heath Gorham writes: “when a person pulled over in a vehicle to use heroin with children in the back, and when a person furnished drugs that resulted in a fatal overdose.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, File

In 2021, PPD Officers were the first on scene and administered life-saving Narcan 70 times. And of the 451 overdoses since then, through April 24, 2022, only two cases resulted in someone being charged with a crime: when a person pulled over in a vehicle to use heroin with children in the back, and when a person furnished drugs that resulted in a fatal overdose.

When an officer sees someone turning blue, with drug paraphernalia nearby – often a needle still stuck in an arm – their only thought is “How can I save this person’s life?” The fact that our officers routinely administer Narcan to reverse the lethal effect of opioids more than once a week – sometimes to the same person multiple times a week – speaks to the fundamental fact that our work is about saving lives and keeping our community safe. We take that responsibility seriously.

The reality in Portland is that despite our partnerships with advocacy and treatment organizations, we have long wait lists and an unconscionably low number of treatment beds to meet the needs of our community members who need help. Law enforcement is a critical tool in this fight as a matter of public health and safety by directly responding to those who are overdosing and targeting enforcement against traffickers who prey on our most vulnerable.

While we are encouraged by the strides legislators are making to reassure bystanders to call 911 to report an overdose, our approach hasn’t changed – we are responding to save lives. Our behavioral health unit and our co-responder model – a template for other departments in Maine and across the country – demonstrate our commitment to developing innovative strategies to respond to the challenges posed by mental health and substance use issues.

The PPD began these efforts in 1996 with the creation of a police liaison position to respond with officers on complex calls involving mental illness and to help connect people with community support. In 2010, the department additionally hired a full-time embedded clinician, which was the start of the behavioral health unit. The Council of State Governments then recognized the department as one of the original six National Learning Sites for other police departments and mental health agencies seeking to develop co-response programs.

Now, the department employs a behavioral health coordinator and a substance use disorder liaison and partners with the Opportunity Alliance to provide an additional mental health police liaison. And the department is in the process of expanding its existing co-responder model by implementing an alternative response program to provide non-law enforcement response for certain calls for service. Over the last year, the behavioral health unit has provided direct assistance 1,322 times. Of those contacts, over 90 percent of the calls were managed in the community. Behavioral health unit clinicians were able to safely clear officers from co-responder calls for service 125 times, saving officers an average of 29 minutes per call.

It’s important to remember the realities and nuances of law enforcement as a tool in addressing the opioid crisis can’t be captured in a single letter or editorial, but we hope that by providing data and information in context with real-life scenarios can help further this very important discussion.

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