Officer Ryan Gagnon of the Lewiston Police Department chats with Nic Tatu, center, and Nathan Holmes on Wednesday. Gagnon patrols downtown on foot while visiting with business owners and talking with people he comes across throughout the day. Tatu and Holmes work for Eric’s Painting and were taking a short break from a building renovation project. Lewiston is planning to use similar walking patrols in other areas of the city. Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — A plan under consideration by city officials would expand the use of mental health and substance use counselors within the Lewiston Police Department.

A draft of the plan, which was reviewed during a City Council workshop Tuesday, lays out how the department could add new positions to address opioid overdoses and the department’s overall calls for service, which have risen significantly over the past decade.

The public safety plan, which was requested by the council as part of its two-year priorities, also calls for an increase in foot patrols and an expansion of a “selective enforcement” team aimed at addressing an increase in shootings.

Police Chief Brian O’Malley said Tuesday that calls for service have increased markedly, by some 10,000 calls annually over the past nine years, due in large part to mental health or substance use-related issues. He said counselors can work alongside officers to connect people with needed resources, from MaineCare and General Assistance to substance use support.

He said many calls for service end up relating to a number of the same individuals, but that the department is hoping the expansion of counseling services can help break the cycle.

“The goal is to reduce the number of (calls), improve the quality of life for our residents and help the individuals who are on the margins of society obtain the assistance they need to acquire housing, employment and recovery,” he wrote in a memo to the council.

At least one full-time position will begin soon through the state’s OPTIONS program, rolled out by the Mills administration in response to rising drug overdoses during the pandemic.

The department, in collaboration with Tri-County Mental Health Services, will host the employee, but due to the nature of the grant, the individual will be responsible for responding to issues in all of Androscoggin County, O’Malley said.

In 2019, the department responded to 112 overdoses, 13 of which resulted in deaths. There have been 127 overdoses and 15 deaths so far this year.

The plan also calls for expanding the department’s Project Support You, another collaboration with Tri-County Mental Health where a licensed mental health counselor, who is also a certified alcohol and drug counselor, responds to mental health or substance use calls alongside an officer.

Currently, the counselor is only available to work with the Police Department for 10 hours a week, but O’Malley said he’ll be making a budget request to the council to contract with Tri-County Mental Health to have two counselors available to work with people suffering from mental health issues 40 hours a week.

During the workshop Tuesday, O’Malley said often the “natural inclination” for police officers is to make arrests and enforce laws, but he said mental health and substance use counselors provide “another tool for officers,” who despite training, are overwhelmed.

“It’s mind-boggling the number of calls, and often it’s the same person over and over,” he said.

Also included in the plan is an increase in “foot and crime suppression” patrols, like one focused on downtown Lisbon Street that has been lauded by officials and the business community since it was rolled out this summer.

Officer Ryan Gagnon of the Lewiston Police Department talks with barber Joe Etienne at Major Cuts Barbershop in downtown Lewiston on Wednesday. Gagnon patrols downtown on foot while visiting with business owners and talking with people he comes across throughout the day. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Officer Ryan Gagnon, who has been on the Lisbon Street beat since the start of the summer, confronts issues such as public drinking and engages residents in conversation.

O’Malley’s memo states he has expanded walking patrols to include two patrol officers in the downtown residential area for each night shift “in order to address the safety concerns of our residents.”

“These walking patrols have established a presence, which potentially prevents crimes and taking action on crimes as they occur,” he said.

But, due to simultaneous increases in shootings and other violent crime, O’Malley said there must be more targeted enforcement, which is why the plan also calls for continued “directed crime suppression patrols” related to violent crime, and an expansion of a selective enforcement team, which is often tasked with investigating shootings.

According to the memo, there was one reported shooting in the city in 2010. In 2019, it was 14, and so far this year there have been 13. Police Department investigations have shown that many of the shootings are related to drug trafficking.

Mayor Mark Cayer said the plan balances a new approach on social services with enforcement, and he said foot patrols “help people in residential neighborhoods get to know officers.”

A major roadblock to implementing the changes, however, will be staffing levels, O’Malley said.

The department is down 10 officers, with funding for two officers eliminated as part of this year’s COVID-19-hampered budget. He said the pandemic has delayed the pipeline of new officers starting at the police academy, and with current trends, the department is “lucky to get three or four people to apply for six or seven jobs.”

Cayer said the council requested the public safety plan as part of a departmentwide effort to update plans for the coming year. The council recently adopted an economic development plan, and Cayer said every department has a role in economic development, including police.

Cayer said the newly-established Equity and Diversity ad hoc committee did not participate in the formation of the public safety plan, but the committee has almost completed its look into the city’s hiring practices and other issues, and will announce recommendations soon.

The committee was created after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which sparked nationwide protests over police use of force and calls for more proactive policing. It led to tension between the Lewiston Police patrol union and city officials.

City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil said the council will vote to adopt the public safety plan during an upcoming meeting.

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