Timberlake backs off from proposal to ease way for police to take people into temporary custody

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Jan. 13—Instead of giving law enforcement broader authority to take mentally ill people into any sort of custody, many advocates told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Thursday to turn instead to trained crisis workers and rely less on police.

Lawmakers appeared to agree.

"Clearly there are things that need to be addressed," Sen. Lisa Keim, a Dixfield Republican, said.

She said the state needs "more crisis care workers" to cope with situations like the one that occurred before the Feb. 12, 2020, murder of Troy and Dulsie Varney in their Turner farmhouse.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, a Turner Republican whose "Varney Bill" spurred the hearing, backed away from its proposal to give law enforcement a wider range of power to take people into temporary custody for a cooling-down period.

He said he would take a wait-and-see policy to find out if a new law that took effect in October might help in crises like the one faced by law enforcement hours before the stabbing deaths that motivated him to push for change.

The committee tabled the measure Thursday with plans to reconsider it again in February, perhaps refocusing its attention to the need for more mental health crisis workers, even if it carries a price tag.

"Funding is part of it. There's no doubt about it," Timberlake said.

The Varneys deaths were the most devastating event anyone in town could remember, said Rep. Joshua Morris, a Turner Republican who supported Timberlake's bill.

Much of the testimony heard by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday urged legislators to hit the brakes on making the existing law tougher, though the Varneys' two daughters backed Timberlake's initial push for a broader standard, saying it might have saved their parents' lives.

Virtually everyone who spoke to the panel said more must be done to provide help for Mainers put at risk by mental health crises.

"We need to do something," Kandie Cleaves of Garland said. "Our system is failing."

The new law that took effect Oct. 1 allows officials to act if someone "poses a likelihood of serious harm," replacing the old standard that required somebody to present "a threat of imminent and substantial physical harm."

Timberlake said it "may be best to allow some time for us to see the effects and value of this new law" which has apparently led to more people being taken to hospitals for help.

Timberlake said it's difficult to strike the proper balance between individual rights and acting preemptively when someone is having a mental health crisis, or on the verge of one.

Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, told the committee the bill "threatens to undermine fundamental liberties, is unnecessary and seeks to rely on police to address issues that are better handled by mental health crisis workers."

"The tragic scenario that spurred the legislation is a double homicide involving a man with serious, unaddressed mental health needs," he said, and the ACLU shares Timberlake's concerns about what happened.

But, Kebede said, broadening the standard for police to take someone into custody is not the solution.

"Mental illness, or perceived mental illness, cannot by itself be a justifiable reason for depriving a person against their objection," Kebede testified. "This is why the law requires in almost all cases that police have probable cause to believe that a crime was committed before they take someone into custody."

He said lawmakers should be wary about "making it easier for the state to deprive someone of their fundamental liberty without adequate safeguards in place," particularly since a new law, with slightly easier standards, just took effect and its impact is unknown.

Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, said there is "a continuing problem to be addressed in the intersection of law enforcement and mental health crisis."

She said situations like the one in Turner "must be handled with caution and care to assure individual rights are maintained and yet secure public safety."

Shaughnessy urged lawmakers to focus on more training for law enforcement and crisis workers to use the new legal language effectively.

That revision is a key piece of the puzzle, Kevin Voyvodich, a lawyer for Disability Rights Maine, said. It served to expand who can be taken into protective custody.

Voyvodich said additional training would help.

Simonne Maline, executive director of the Consumer Council System of Maine, urged legislators to wait and see how the new law works out.

"We need to make sure all law enforcement knows about this change, and we then see if that made a difference before additional laws that my fellow mental health peers would not support are enacted," Maline said.

Kebede said, "Maine, like the rest of the country, must stop relying on the criminal legal system to solve health care challenges."

He said the state should take a look at the way cities in Colorado and California "have already started experimenting with ways to respond to mental health crises using trained health care workers, rather than with armed law enforcement officers."

It may prove a better answer for "runaway mental health crises," Kebede said, and would "save lives and money."

Betsy Sweet, a former gubernatorial candidate representing the Behavioral Health Community Collaborative, told the committee Timberlake is right in thinking "there is a problem in the intersection between our mental health system" and law enforcement that "has never been more clear or important."

But it is not a law enforcement issue, she said.

"It is a human services, mental health problem, and I hope that we will address it from that perspective," Sweet said.

Sweet said it would have been better, for instance, if "a pair of mental health workers would have been dispatched and approached the gentleman early on" before the Varney murder, "when he clearly was in distress but was not doing anything illegal."

"They would have the training and time to talk and work with someone and can then lead them to safety first, and then to services," she said, with no interaction required with law enforcement.

"There are lots of programs that exist or are getting started in Maine which, if fully funded and coordinated would mean that it would not be a huge lift to do this here," Sweet added.

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