A Sound Mind: Law Enforcement

Published: Jul. 26, 2022 at 12:31 PM EDT
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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine (WAGM) -

National Tragedies like Uvalde and Highland Park have highlighted the need for situationally aware law enforcement response, both before and during an incident. In our ongoing series, A Sound Mind, Brian Bouchard sits down with Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen and gives an inside look at how mental health and substance abuse is dealt with by law enforcement.

“We have just as much mental illness here, and drug use here as anywhere else in the united states. I mean my jail is full of people that have mental illness, or drug addiction, or mental illness caused by drug addiction.”

Sheriff Shawn Gillen says the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office, as well as other law enforcement in the county deal with our communities growing mental health and substance use disorder crisis on a daily basis.

“Time and time again we deal with people that the PD’s bring in where they have dealt with them 4 or 5 times, maybe more a night and they’re just small petty crimes that wouldn’t necessarily mean that you would have to go to jail but what do you do with them? They escalate, and next thing you know they have to bring them into the jail, to get them off the street, for their own protection more than anybody else’s maybe, they may be trying to self harm or whatever, but, the next day they’re right back out again and the PDs are dealing with them again. That’s one of the things that I rail about in the jail a lot, some of these people shouldn’t even be there, they should be in a mental institute, they should be getting treatment. Same thing with substance use disorder, same thing, if you’re a user and you’re not one of the frontline dealers most likely you should be getting some treatment.”

To address the significant increase of crisis and substance use calls, some law enforcement agencies across the country have opted to add mental health specialists to their rosters, however Gillen says replacing law enforcement with mental health specialists is not the answer.

“Can we work closer with these organizations that help mental health or substance abuse? Yes, we should be and we are working towards that but getting rid of one for the other is just not the answer. If it was an incident where somebody really needed to talk to a crisis worker then we would try to get that facilitated, but if they’ve got a gun and they’re waving it around and they’re shooting it off, we’re not going to put somebody else’s life in danger, we’re already there and sometimes its an outcome that we just don’t want, there’s not a cop here that wants to kill anybody but they’re going to go home to their families and they’re going to make sure the public is safe as well.”

Gillen went on to express frustration around the many discussions and summits regarding law enforcement’s response to the mental health and substance use disorder. He says while they are held, he sees no action taken.

“Well you know, it gets talked about a lot which is the most frustrating part, everybody talks about how mental health and substance use disorder are among the top of the problems that we’re dealing with right now, and “what are we going to do?”, we have all these summits and we talk about this and talk about that and then the next day nothings changed. Everybody has great ideas but nothing changes, because you’re still dealing with the same issues as staffing shortages or there’s no money in place or there’s not enough treatment facilities.”

Gillen says the Aroostook County Jail has workers from AMHC and other mental health and substance use disorder treatment agencies working with inmates on a daily basis, and hopes to one day be able to provide on-site treatment at the Jail, if and when a new Jail is ever built.

Brian Bouchard, NewsSource8

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