Sgt. Colleen Adams of the Sanford Police Department’s mental health unit said she and others who work with Maine’s yellow flag law should have a say in making it more effective and easier to use. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For years, Maine police departments made little use of a state law that allows them to take firearms away from people in crisis.  

Then, in October, a man who had been hearing voices and threatening violence shot and killed 18 people in Lewiston. In the three months since, Maine police have used the law an average of about once a day, taking guns away from people they believe might shoot themselves or others. 

Meanwhile, a group of mental health professionals who work for police departments in York County is aiming to improve the yellow flag law. They want their front-line experience to be considered when lawmakers consider reforms.

“We want to make the law more user-friendly for the officers, and make it so that it’s not overwhelming to try to use,” said Shannon Bentley, mental health first responder with the Sanford Police Department, and part of the group seeking change. “Officers aren’t mental health providers.” 

Bentley said the process “should be more streamlined” and easier to follow, and with not as many gray areas that can now sometimes make officers hesitant to invoke the law.

Gov. Janet Mills said in her State of the State address that she is looking to reform the law in the wake of the mass shooting, although specific legislation has yet to be introduced. Democratic lawmakers are also planning to unveil reforms to Maine’s gun laws in response to Lewiston, including potential changes to the yellow flag law.


Maine passed the yellow flag law in 2019, but it took years to develop a reliable system for police to have access to mental health evaluations on demand. The law, which is the only one of its kind in the country, requires police to first take subjects into protective custody, then have them evaluated by a mental health professional to confirm they pose a threat to themselves or others before going to a judge for an order to temporarily take away someone’s firearms.

The yellow flag law was used sporadically before the Oct. 25 shootings in Lewiston that killed 18 people, including an average of five times per month from January through October last year.

But since Nov. 1, police departments across Maine have used the law an average of once per day.

The yellow flag law was not used to take guns away from the shooter in Lewiston, despite warnings that Robert Card falsely believed people were spreading lies about him, had access to weapons and threatened to use them, and was in a psychiatric facility in New York state for about two weeks in August.

Police, mental health professionals and the courts have worked to use Maine’s yellow flag law more often in the wake of the tragedy.

The law was used 37 times in November, 28 times in December and 35 times in January to temporarily remove weapons from people who present a danger to themselves or others. The law was used 179 times from July 2020 to Feb. 4, 2023, according to the latest data from the Attorney General’s Office.

It’s often used in mental health crises, when people have access to guns and are threatening suicide or homicide.

“More police departments are using the law,” said Ben Strick, vice president of adult behavioral health with Spurwink, which does most of the mental health evaluations required under the yellow flag law. “The frequency has remained high, and we have not seen a decrease in acuity of cases. That is truly remarkable.”

Strick said he expects significant changes to the law will be proposed by Mills and the Maine Department of Public Safety, although details have yet to emerge.

Mills said in her State of the State address that she wants to make it easier for police to take someone into protective custody when they are a danger to themselves or others, a necessary step to conduct the required mental health evaluation. Police who responded to reports of Card’s declining mental health said they could not use the yellow flag law because they did not have probable cause to forcibly take him into custody.

Exactly how Mills’ reforms would be different from current law has yet to be revealed.

Some Maine lawmakers want the state to go further and adopt what’s known as a red flag law, similar to laws that have been approved in 21 other states. Maine is the only state with a yellow flag law, while 28 states have neither law on the books. Red flag laws do not require a person be put into protective custody or a sign-off by a mental health professional before having their weapons removed, but still require a court process and judge approval.

Research on how effective red flag laws are at preventing violence is ongoing, but research in Connecticut suggests they can prevent suicide in 5-10% of cases. New York’s red flag law has been invoked thousands of times in 2022 and 2023, but it is under attack in state courts by gun rights groups because they say it doesn’t have enough due process for people before removing their weapons.

The balance between gun rights and public safety will be a key issue for lawmakers and the Mills administration in the coming weeks. When someone is put into protective custody, they are not under arrest, but their rights are temporarily taken away while police assess the danger to the public.

A group of mental health liaisons representing various departments in York County – the group meets every few weeks – has been discussing ways that the law can be improved, and they say they should be allowed to have input on proposed changes to the law. The group hasn’t yet formed specific recommendations.

Rachel Schlein, a behavioral health liaison with the Kennebunk Police Department, is working with a group looking to reform Maine’s yellow flag laws. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Rachel Schlein, behavioral health liaison with the Kennebunk Police Department and part of the York County group, said there’s a lot of policy questions to consider and that a lot of groups should have a seat at the table, including mental health professionals and law enforcement on the front lines responding to the cases.

“Are there ways to potentially reexamine how we do protective custody?” Schlein said. “Is there a way the system can intervene earlier and more frequently? I do believe we can do better, and these questions are worth asking and exploring further.”

Sgt. Colleen Adams, who leads the Sanford Police Department’s mental health unit, said that while more police departments are using the law, the process still takes six to eight hours for each case, and not every department has the resources to do it. Sanford’s department has been helping to train police departments on how best to utilize the law.

“In Sanford, we have a whole unit dedicated to this,” Adams said. “We get calls from some police departments who ask us how to do this when they have one officer covering the entire town and the closest hospital is an hour away.”

Usually, the subject is in the hospital for a mental health crisis while police work on a three-page checklist that includes a mental health assessment and sign-off from a judge allowing them to remove weapons. The process is time-consuming and fragile, with many potential ways that the process could be derailed and the weapons not collected, Adams said.

Adams said despite the difficulties in using the yellow flag law, more agencies have contacted Sanford and signed up for training on how to use the law. And she said there’s more awareness by the public that the law exists, resulting in more calls from people when a friend or family member is deemed dangerous and has access to guns.

Neither the state nor the individual police departments provide detailed information about yellow flag cases. The Attorney General’s Office provides a running list with brief descriptions only.

Many involve people who have threatened or attempted suicide and agree to undergo the mental health evaluation. A smaller number are people who threaten others, and those usually involve some criminal charge that allows police to take them into custody.

In one case in Sanford on Jan. 10, for example, “a 57-year-old man suffering paranoid delusions fired several shotgun rounds at imaginary people invading his home and entered neighbor’s house with loaded shotgun seeking assistance” according to the Attorney General’s summary.

Adams said that’s a good example of the limitations of the yellow flag law because had the man not fired his weapon, Sanford police may have had a more difficult time removing the weapons. Adams said the fact that the man could be charged with reckless endangering by firing the weapon gave police more tools to use when responding to the scene.

Adams said another shortcoming is that there’s no state database that can tell officers who is a “prohibited person” and not allowed to possess firearms as a result of the yellow flag law. She said that without a lot of investigating, police have no way of knowing when as they make a stop whether someone is permitted to have their weapons.

“Whatever is proposed,” Adams said, “we would like (lawmakers and the Mills administration) to say, ‘Give us your thoughts and opinions on how this will work for you.’ After all, we are going to be the ones utilizing the laws.”

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