October 1, 2015 – Crisis & Counseling Centers’ (C&C’s) Midnight Team program, which pairs behavioral health professionals with a patrolling police officer during evening hours, has expanded to Augusta based on community need.

The existing Midnight Team program in Waterville aims to expose law enforcement officers to residents with mental health and substance abuse issues in an effort to help officers understand alternative ways to interact with this population and reduce unnecessary arrests. Midnight Team crisis workers, who are trained to provide rapid response to individuals and families in crisis, partner with officers daily and primarily work out of a police car.

The C&C Midnight Team ride-along program was established in 1996, following a double homicide at the Waterville-based Servants of the Blessed Sacrament convent. The convicted killer’s history of mental instability revealed a lack of communication among first responders and a broad gap in the system of care.

“We recognized, after that tragedy, that there were a lot of people in the community who suffered from mental health problems,” said current Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey. “At that time we didn’t share a lot of information or work closely with mental health professionals.”

Former Waterville Police Chief John Morris, who now serves as Maine’s public safety commissioner, and C&C’s then-CEO Lynn Duby developed the program to foster collaboration among law enforcement and mental health care staff at the scene of a crisis.

According to Massey, the volume of high-risk individuals living in Waterville made the city an ideal place to pilot the Midnight Team program. As the second-largest Maine city north of Augusta, Waterville is a hub for people in need of vital services, including behavioral health care, medication management, housing assistance, and access to transportation.

“It makes Waterville an attractive place to relocate for people who are leaving jail or institutions,” Massey said, adding that such residents can exhaust police resources and pose unique challenges. That is when Midnight Team workers, who are trained to assess community members in crisis, can help.

Crisis & Counseling Centers’ Crisis Mobile Triage Manager Tara Karczewski-Mitchell has been part of the Midnight Team since the late 1990s and now leads the program. “Sometimes we call our Midnight Team workers and ask them to respond to a possible domestic violence case or substance abuse issue, and the officer goes wherever the crisis worker needs to go.” In other cases, the crisis worker accompanies the police officer to the scene.

This program differs from C&C’s 24-hour Crisis Mobile Triage program in that Midnight Team staff can provide immediate, face-to-face treatment. “You’re not seeing clients in the emergency room in the aftermath of a crisis like you often would in Triage. You’re seeing them when they’re actually in the emergency,” Karczewski-Mitchell said. When possible, that rapid response happens at the caller’s residence to avoid the high costs of emergency rooms.

While all C&C crisis workers complete an eight-to 10-week intensive training program upon hire, those focusing on Midnight Team work must undergo more than 50 hours of additional training with the police department.

“We worked with the Waterville Police Department to create a curriculum that pulls out everything from Maine’s 100-hour Law Enforcement Pre-Service Training Program course that a Midnight Team worker would need to know,” Karczewski-Mitchell said.

The training and knowledge that C&C staff bring to the table complement the skills of local police officers. The Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which provides training and certification to Maine’s law enforcement and corrections officers, offers merely a few blocks of instruction focused on mental health, according to Massey.

“But no matter how much training our officers get, it will never be to the level of someone who is a professional in the mental health field,” Massey said.

The relationship that law enforcement officers and C&C staff develop through the program is invaluable, with each party bringing different knowledge and resources to every situation. While the police department may be familiar with one resident’s criminal history, C&C may be able to supplement with information about the person’s behavioral health concerns or medications.

Many Midnight Team assignments involve previous callers to C&C’s crisis hotline. Because case files already exist for these clients, C&C staff are better prepared to respond.

“We can meet with clients and know, per their history, that they aren’t taking any medications or are showing symptoms of significant psychosis that are specific to them,” said Marc Moreau, and experienced crisis worker who transitioned to C&C’s Midnight Team.

“Police officers don’t always recognize that the symptoms an individual is presenting may be a precursor to or the result of a more server mental health crisis,” Moreau added. “We’re really offering our services to people who the police may not realize would need them, such as an out-of-control child or someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or trauma-related issues.”

Ensuring the safety of Midnight Team workers is the highest priority for both C&C and the police officers.

“The police department does an excellent job of making sure any scene is safe before allowing the crisis worker to step out of the police cruiser,” Moreau said. Staff are also supplied with bulletproof vests and radios to maintain contact with the police officer and C&C’s crisis team leader throughout the client interaction.

As a result of the Midnight Team program, the Waterville Police Department has reduced involuntary committals to emergency departments by 15 to 20 percent, according to Massey. The program has also reduced the number of arrests of people with mental health concerns, instead allowing crisis workers to assess and determine a treatment plan–saving law enforcement’s time and taxpayer dollars.

In Moreau’s opinion, every community would benefit from a Midnight Team program. “We bridge the gap in the system. We help diminish response time because we’re right there with the police and can administer mental health assistance on the spot.”

When Karczewski-Mitchell noticed a greater need for late-night mental health services in Augusta last winter, she approached the Augusta Police Department.

Police Chief Robert Gregoire, who has been with the Augusta Police Department for 27 years, said the area’s uptick in mental health consumers has been an ongoing trend. “Since the de-institutionalization of [Augusta Mental Health Institute], the reduced beds in the hospitals have placed more of these mental health consumers in our community.”

Gregoire said he is appreciative of C&C recognizing the need for these services in the Augusta area and reaching out to the department. “For our newer officers and other officers, that exposure to a C&C team member provides us education, training, and experience. I think it makes us better.”

When the Midnight Team program expanded to Augusta, the Waterville Police Department shared the benefits of the program and resources with Gregoire and his officers.

“This is not a problem that will go away, so it’s critical that we keep this Midnight Team project and relationship going,” Massey said. “It’s proved to be a valuable program, not only for the police and the community, but primarily for the person who’s in that darkest moment – that crisis – and needs help.”