December 16, 2012

Wilton police seek advance IDs on residents with mental health, medical issues

Police chief says early notice will help officers when those who can't communicate well need help

By Kaitlin Schroeder kschroeder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WILTON -- When a disoriented man was found wandering downtown in freezing weather last year, police had a problem. They didn't know who he was or how to contact his family.

click image to enlarge

Wilton Police Chief Heidi Wilcox

Staff file photo by David Leaming

By a stroke of luck, a paramedic who had been called to help recognized the man, who had Alzheimer's disease, and knew his family. Problem solved -- that time.

The incident spurred a program that police hoped would help in similar cases. They asked that residents with mental health and medical problems to notify them so they can act more quickly in similar situations.

Since then, a handful of residents have volunteered information on special medical circumstances to police through the safety and assistance form, Chief Heidi Wilcox said. But only a handful. Wilton police have received fewer than 10 forms since the program began in January.

Residents can use the form to provide information about special circumstances voluntarily. The police store the information in a database they began using in September. Except for emergency responders, the information is kept confidential, she said.

The forms can include information about personal mental health problems, sensitivity to touching or personal space, Alzheimer's disease or issues like paranoia. Residents also have provided the name of their mental health care provider or other emergency contact information.

Wilcox said the information arms police with knowledge to approach emergencies involving those who have provided forms.

Wilcox encourages people to provide anything they think will help police in an emergency.

"Sometimes just having information like their dog's name is Sparky will give the police officer something neutral to talk about and de-escalate the situation," she said.

In one example, a mother let police know that her son had emotional health problems and violent tendencies.

The mother said police needed to know that if they were to become involved with him, he would be calmer if given space.

Wilcox said information like this can both help the mother feel more comfortable about reporting emergencies and helps the police be informed when responding.

She said she hopes more people will be aware they can volunteer information.

"Even knowing about a key under a doormat can let emergency responders enter without breaking down a door," she said.

A series of stories published last week by the Morning Sentinel, the Kennebec Journal and the Portland Press Herald found that in Maine, police are increasingly becoming front-line mental health workers and that the vast majority of police lack the crisis intervention training to prevent a deadly conflict. Since 2000, 42 of the people shot by police had mental health problems, the series reported.

Kaitlin Schroeder -- 861-9252
kschroeder@mainetoday.com

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