BAR HARBOR — The caller said a drug addict was in the middle of the street going crazy.
When Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police Officer Brad O’Neil and Sgt. Chris Wharff got there, someone pointed to what looked like needle marks up and down the subject’s arm, and he appeared to be rolling pills between his fingers.
But O’Neil wasn’t sure that’s what he was seeing.
“I put my hand on him and felt his whole body change,” he said. “And I know from experience that autistic people do not like to be touched.
“But he would not comply, and he had his hands underneath his shirt. So, for safety, we handcuffed him, and the minute we did, he went off on this high-pitched scream.
“At that moment, I knew this person was not on drugs; he was autistic. So, we changed gears. We took the handcuffs off and got him in the car.”
A moment later, the young man’s mother arrived and told the officers how much she appreciated the way they had treated her son.
O’Neil credits his response in that situation to the 40-hour training course in crisis intervention that he and several other Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police officers have taken.
Because of that training, O’Neil recognized that the “drug addict going crazy” didn’t have needle marks on his arm. They were bite marks; he sometimes bites his own arm. And the “pill rolling” with his fingers was an involuntary repetitive behavior called stimming – short for self-stimulation – that is typical of people with autism.
“Another person who was not trained [in crisis intervention] might not have seen that,” O’Neil said. “And that’s how people get hurt. That’s how people get shot or Tased.
“He wasn’t listening to our commands. But I recognized he was not a threat to us.”
A few days after that incident, Officer Ted Cake responded to a report that a young member of a household was out of control.
“He was really upset, yelling and carrying on,” Cake said. “He has a history of anxiety and depression, and I saw that he was having some of those stimming behaviors that we learned about in CIT (crisis intervention training).”
Cake quickly determined that a family issue was the immediate cause of the young man’s anxiety.
“The second I got the source of what was upsetting him out of the room and talked to him privately, he came way down and was very responsive to me,” Cake said. “We de-escalated everything a little bit and came to an understanding with the rest of the family, and that was it. That’s the best outcome we could have.”
Cake and O’Neil said the situations they recounted are not uncommon. In fact, they are practically an everyday occurrence.
“With all the drug use, all the depression and all the people who are mentally ill, I’ve dealt with so many people in crisis,” O’Neil said.
“I have compassion for these people because they don’t need to be in jail. They need to be in a hospital to be taken care of, not to be punished, because it’s not a crime; it’s an illness. A lot of people don’t recognize that, and this training teaches you that.”
Typically, when an officer deals with someone who isn’t compliant, “egos start getting in the way,” O’Neil said. “Everybody gets amped up. Our goal with CIT is to de-escalate as fast as we can by being calm, compassionate and showing respect. You want to get down to their level and show them that you’re human, too, and you’re here for them.”
O’Neil said CIT is probably the best training he has had as a law enforcement officer.
“Going to the firing range is fun,” he said. “But this is practical, it’s useful, and it’s something I take to heart.”
The CIT class that O’Neil and Cake took was held in Ellsworth. It included visits to the Emmaus Center homeless shelter, a shelter for battered women, Maine Coast Memorial Hospital and the Atlantic Mental Health Center (AMHC).
The Bar Harbor and Mount Desert CIT officers have developed a strong partnership with AMHC, whose mental health professionals often take over after the officers get a crisis situation under control and sometimes even go with them on calls.
The standard training that new law enforcement officers receive at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy now includes eight hours of CIT. But that isn’t sufficient, said Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police Chief Jim Willis.
“The 40-hour training really gets you what you need,” he said. “We’re going to send as many of our officers as we can.”
Of the officers who have already been, Willis said, “They are doing impressive work. I’ve seen how much better they are at de-escalating situations. When you watch a young officer who hasn’t had the training and an experienced officer who has, the difference is remarkable.”