For some time now, Americans have watched one incident after another in which police-citizen interactions go bad. We’ve heard all sorts of proposals about how to improve this hard, ugly truth. No single change is likely to improve conditions enough to make people feel that we are making real progress, but a recent Bangor Daily News (Maine) article illustrates one interesting approach that might become a small part of the solution.

Bringing armed police into a volatile situation might not always be the first move you want to make, as we have seen in incidents like the 2020 shooting of an agitated and knife-wielding mentally ill person in Philadelphia. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/27/us/philadelphia-police-shooting-walter-wallace-jr.html 

When a medical emergency sends us rushing to a hospital ER, the staff must triage arriving cases, determining which cases must be seen immediately then deciding among a variety of possible interventions what should be done. They don’t just send in the surgeons for every arrival.

Any crisis intervention by police, doctors, family members, or others depends on having a situation secure enough so that all involved operate with some confidence that they will be safe. One of the hazards of police work is that they are thrust into unsafe situations on a regular basis.

BEFORE situations become hazardous, SOME of them can be handled in ways that reduce the chances that they will develop into full-blown guns-drawn horror shows. My focus here is not on large problems but small ones, but we know that sometimes small ones grow. Life’s everyday hard adjustments and testy social interactions are hard enough—then throw in the effects of poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorder.

Abigail Curtis’s Bangor Daily News article tells the story of how a small town in Maine has started a program ­­meant to reduce the incidence of such encounters. Modeled after a 20-year program in Portland, the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office hired Rob Porter as its unarmed, non-uniformed “community liaison.” https://bangordailynews.com/2021/02/12/news/midcoast/meet-the-Rob -plain-clothed-liaison-who-helps-waldo-county-respond-to-certain-911-calls/?fbclid=IwAR1bn33j4yKteoeympkeNnPsGfBcp4nGHkkpOXK2kdvQSVd0n2qaxBr9TAc

“Deputies responding to 911 calls in Waldo County sometimes find themselves mediating property line disputes or child custody battles, mental health crises and family fights.

“Once they even responded to a call from people who had a bat in their house.

“In those situations, there’s often no crime — but a uniformed officer showing up in a patrol car with a gun might not make things better.”

Trained in mental health (including substance use disorder), skilled listener Porter can diffuse situations that might spiral in bad ways. The article offers two vignettes showing how he has helped vulnerable individuals and built bridges between those people and care-providers and authorities. A helper with no official powers, Rob Porter is well aware that his intervention works only if the person across from him is willing to be part of the process.   

Porter appears to have a pretty convincing personality. He earned his street cred the hard way, having been incarcerated for parts of 30 years.

“In 2012, he graduated from the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast, a residential facility designed to give incarcerated men the skills and experience they need to live in their communities after transitioning out of the correctional system.”

All photos by Linda Coan O’Kresik of Bangor Daily News

 Somewhere along the line, the man who now provides turning points for others experienced his own as an inmate. (Put him on the list of changed individuals that I would love to interview!)

Read Abigail Curtis’s article, please.

What he’s doing is making a difference, but the funding has to come from somewhere. They’re making it work in Belfast. I hope other communities will consider supporting such programs to the degree that they can afford. 

A last thought about how this relates to positive psychology, a topic we’ve explored in this space before and which I wrote about in Open Admissions.

We all have problems. Some of us become overwhelmed by them. What is the opposite of a problem? It’s not just the absence of paralyzing problems. That’s like going from negative 10 to 0. We hope for more than that.

I suspect that Rob Porter’s life has provided him a pretty full understanding of the word problem. Through years of effort, he’s eliminated many of the problems he’d struggled through, which probably brought him up to zero on the problem scale. Because he now helps others with their problems, I’m guessing that Rob would describe himself as being well above zero. Well done and thank you, Rob Porter.

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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on nedbachus.com and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.

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