The Sanford Police Department recently welcomed a new member to its Mental Health Unit, which primarily works to help homeless people and those with substance abuse problems in our community. Shannon Bentley is a clinical social worker who will focus in particular on getting unhoused residents and those in crisis the services they need. She works alongside Officers Colleen Adams and Mike Gordon, and OPTIONS clinician Lacey Bailey, whose focus is on substance use issues.
Ms. Bentley is a Maine native having grown up in North Berwick. She received her B.S. in nursing from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Master of Social Work at USM. She is a Mental Health Rehabilitation Technician, Crisis Service Provider, and certified recovery coach. She brings with her years of clinical experience having worked for Opportunity Alliance for six years as a Police Liaison for the Portland, Westbrook and Saco Police Departments.
She told the Sanford Springvale News that she was excited to come to Sanford where she could work as part of a team. Her specialty is in working with the severely persistent mentally ill population. Not all are unhoused, but may come into contact with the Police Department if they stop taking their medication and become depressed, confused or aggressive. She helps people to connect with resources and providers, and to make plans for their next steps. Some of what she does is short term case management, providing a bridge to long term supports.
Since its inception, the Mental Health Unit has made a big impact in Sanford. It started with then-Officer Eric Small (who has since gone on to become Assistant Police Chief) reaching out to people experiencing homelessness wherever they were – in the woods, in a tent or in their vehicles. That one-on-one connection began to forge a different relationship with the Police Department for many of them. Some who once saw police officers as adversaries, started to see them as a helping hand to a better life.
At the same time, every person who gets into shelter or into recovery reduces the number of calls and the workload for the patrol force. At the City Council’s Housing Workshop this week, Ofc. Adams told the Council that between January and June of this year, six individuals were responsible for approximately 500 calls to the SPD for service, 50 arrests and 40 hospitalizations. By the end of the summer, all six had been placed or are getting needed services, and have not required police response since.
The members of the MHU are vital to the SPD’s community policing model because they are the connection to social service resources which the average officer may not be familiar with. They also have the flexibility to assist people in crisis who may need a longer period of time than an officer who must also respond to crimes in progress, motor vehicle accidents and other emergencies can spend.
Getting individuals with deep rooted problems to needed services often requires multiple attempts or approaches. Ofc. Gordon said he has been able to help individuals by breaking their large problems down into small steps that are attainable. Things that most of us take for granted, like a shower or a driver’s license, can be huge barriers to people in getting employment or housing. For people without family support, it can be even more difficult. But as Ofc. Adams summed it up, “As long as the person is willing to work with us, we will fight alongside them as a team.”