For those who need help: call the Maine Suicide Prevention Program’s toll-free crisis hotline at 1-888-568-1112 or nationwide at 1-800-273-TALK or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
The use of Maine’s yellow flag law, which allows police and prosecutors to seek a court order restricting the ability of people who have threatened to harm themselves or others to access dangerous weapons, has surged this year.
The reason for that is the availability of a health professional 24 hours a day, seven days a week for evaluations to determine if a person is a danger to themself or others. That service, provided by Spurwick, went online in October, according to Benjamin Strick, senior director of adult behavioral health for Spurwick.
The law has been used 58 times between the date it went into effect on July 1, 2020, and May 31. Thirty incidents have been reported since Jan. 1, a majority of them in southern and western Maine. A third of those took place in May.
Of those 30, Spurwick staff did the evaluations in 25 of them, Strick said Tuesday. The evaluation service can be accessed by law enforcement officers throughout the state.
The majority of the cases where the law was used included threats of suicide, although some people also experienced delusions. Some cases included threats of harm to family members and others but few people threatened a mass shooting at a public place.
Laws that restrict access to weapons have been a popular policy response in Maine and other states to the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But the lack of a telehealth option meant police had to take individuals to emergency rooms to be evaluated, which some hospitals balked at. Spurwick’s telehealth option removed a major hurdle to obtaining the required mental health evaluation.
A list compiled by the Maine attorney general’s office lists the date of an incident when a particular law enforcement agency sought weapons restriction orders. The office does not track the number of orders issued.
For example, the York police sought an order on May 5 for a 78-year-old man who threatened suicide and had a clear plan that included using a specific weapon on a specific day. The man also had devised a means of being identified if the gunshot wound to his head made him unidentifiable.
On April 18, the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office sought a weapons restriction order after a 44-year-old man suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations shot at imaginary people in the house, jumped out a second story window and shot at responding police officers. Criminal charges were filed in that case.
In the most recent incident in the report, Newport police on May 30 used the law to confiscate guns from a 32-year-old man with a history of mental health issues who called his brother and sister saying that he had a gun to his head and was going to kill himself.
Law enforcement officers may take an individual making threats of self-harm or hurting others into protective custody. The next step is for the individual to be evaluated by a medical professional who would decide if the person was at risk of harming himself or others.
Once it is established that someone poses an imminent threat of harm to themselves or others, a prosecutor may then petition a judge to issue a weapons restriction order that would keep the individual in crisis from accessing guns and other weapons for a year by confiscating them.
Individuals may ask a judge to return the weapons that were seized when the order expires.
“These are the instances where everything goes right,” Strick said.
Carlos Diaz, assistant district attorney for Cumberland County, handles yellow flag cases for his office. He said the increase in the use of law is twofold — police officers have become more familiar with the relatively new law and the telehealth option offered by Spurwick.
In some, but not all cases, criminal charges are filed and bail conditions are imposed that prevent individuals at risk of harming themselves or others from possessing guns and other dangerous weapons, Diaz said. The yellow flag law is helpful in cases where criminal charges are not appropriate, he said.
The statute approved by Maine lawmakers is more limited than the red flag laws passed in 21 other states and Washington, D.C. Unlike Maine’s yellow flag law, red flag laws allow family members and police to petition courts to confiscate guns and other dangerous weapons from people found to be dangerous.
Michigan and Minnesota are the latest states to pass red flag laws. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, signed the bill into law last month.