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Sanford Police Department adds second officer to community policing role

Colleen Adams, a community outreach officer for the Sanford Police Department's Mental Health Unit, said 281 people in York County have overdosed so far in 2022.

SANFORD, Maine — For nearly a year, Colleen Adams has been working as a community outreach officer for the Mental Health Unit at the Sanford Police Department. She said her days are almost never consistent, but they're rewarding. 

They include everything from reaching out to people who are experiencing homelessness or mental health issues to responding to overdoses or connecting with local programs that can give people the help they need. 

"Every[time] I start a day, I have a checklist — and by the end of the day, I have even more stuff on a new checklist, and I’ve gotten nothing done on my other checklist half the time," Adams said, regarding how busy she gets.

Ironically, this is a role Adams once never imagined she would take on. 

"Five years ago if you asked me about this position, I probably would have said, 'Why would police departments need this?'" Adams said. "Now, seeing and meeting people where they’re at and working with members of the community — more police departments should have units like this."

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Adams said so far in 2022, 281 people have overdosed in York County. Seventeen of those overdoses were fatal. She said in Maine overall, there have been 2,020 overdoses so far — and 109 people have died. 

For her, those losses can be personal, since she spends so much time interacting with people on the streets and getting to know them personally.

"When they pass away, it’s like you lost somebody that you know," Adams said. "We had two recent deaths that hit hard for a lot of the members in our community and [that] hit officers hard."

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To help address that growing need, Sanford's MHU now has a second community outreach officer in place, as of two weeks ago. That was made possible by a $125,000 Community Oriented Policing Services grant, which the department will officially receive on July 1.

"It’s getting back to the root of the problem, which is usually like a co-occurring issue between mental health and substance abuse," said Michael Shane Gordon, the newest community outreach officer in Sanford, about the job. 

Gordon has been working in community policing for years. He said his background as a school resource officer also sparked his interest in this position.

"I was responding to overdoses of former students that I had been working with since they were small kids," Gordon said.

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Along with helping the most vulnerable feel more connected, Adams and Gordon are helping to alleviate some unnecessary pressure from their colleagues who may not be specifically trained to deal with certain situations.

"For patrol officers that often respond to these calls — they don’t really have the information for the shelters. They don’t have the information for the recovery treatments and those different things," Gordon said. 

He and Adams said they are able to spend more time at a scene with people, whether that means talking through some things or going to the hospital. The role is really all about establishing relationships.

"You talk like you're neighbors, and you ask about the fishing, or you ask how the weather is, or [you] chit-chat about things going on around town," Adams said.

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Work kickstarting the Mental Health Unit in Sanford began in 2019, and it took about two years for that goal to become a reality. The Sanford Police Department said it wants to continue to grow this program and is looking to hire a full-time mental health clinician. They will work alongside Adams and Gordon and an Overdose Prevention Through Extensive Outreach Naloxone (OPTIONS) clinician.

As a note — Adams and Gordon both specified to NEWS CENTER Maine that they often don't wear their protective gear or carry guns while responding to calls with this vulnerable population. They said their goal is to try to help people feel as comfortable and safe around them as possible. 

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