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From the Archives: Police Response to Suicide
Author: John M. Eller
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Originally Published in our Sept/Oct 2001 issue
The details come in piecemeal and incomplete via an excited 9-1-1 caller. The dispatcher initially broadcasts a domestic in progress, and the Brookhaven duty officers acknowledge the call. Typically, on a domestic call, officers are thinking that a male and female are involved in some type of a domestic argument or assault. But the dispatcher adds updated information: this domestic involves a father and son. Now the officers are surmising a young male juvenile and his father are having a dispute. But the next dispatch update raises the anxiety and adrenaline level of the officers; a knife is involved.
Upon arrival at the scene, the officers are met with quite a different set of circumstances. The father opens the door and informs the officers that his 10-year-old son is standing in the kitchen with a knife at his throat, threatening suicide. Fortunately, the initial responding officer is able to persuade the boy to surrender the knife.
The young boy was in a state of depression due to the untimely death of his mother. Apparently, his mother had left the family previously, leaving the boy and other children in the care of the father. After a period-of-time, the mother returned and then suddenly died.
The police quickly arrange for the boy to be admitted to a local Crises Center under an Involuntary Emergency Commitment. Police and Emergency Service Personnel deal with situations such as this on a daily basis.
Some of those who attempt suicide become violent when intervention occurs. Officers and emergency response personnel need to be cognizant of the danger involved when dealing with individuals who are in an altered state of mind, as the result of a mental condition or under the influence of narcotics.
In Pennsylvania, the Mental Health and Procedures Act of 1976 and its updates center around the premise of giving citizens and emergency response personnel the provisions to have someone committed who displays signs of presenting a “clear and present danger” to themselves or others. Many if not most other states have similar laws allowing for involuntary commitment for a specified amount of time if the patient can be shown to constitute a danger to him/herself or others.
These laws are certainly useful in dealing with Mental Health Commitments – but they don’t adequately deal with the issue of officer safety, which is paramount when dealing with potentially dangerous situations.
This is where training comes in. Training is essential in dealing with suicidal or mentally impaired individuals; this includes basic police academy training as well as continued training throughout an officer’s career.
One recent example I attended in Pennsylvania was a summit on “Youth Suicide,” hosted by Delaware County (PA) District Attorney Patrick Meehan for approximately 500 school officials and police officers in March of 2001. A number of guest speakers were brought in to address various issues pertinent to the topic.
Youth suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people in America today following alcohol related accidents and homicide. Dr. Frederic Hellman, a Forensic Pathologist and county Medical Examiner pointed out that there are approximately 30,000 suicides annually. A more staggering statistic is that there are 500 attempted suicides on a daily basis. The doctor pointed out that white females are much more likely to attempt suicide, however, white males are four times more successful in completing the act.
Dr. Mary Margaret Kerr, Director of the STAR Outreach Program in Pittsburgh (PA) addressed the issues concerning suicidal behavior and methods of dealing with the problem. Colonel (Dr.) David Litts, U.S. Air Force, Special Advisor for the US Surgeon General for Suicide Prevention, addressed the Air Force Model of Community Response.
Sergeant Rodney Hill and Officer Joan Logan, Coordinators of the Crises Intervention Team for the Montgomery County (MD) Police Department addressed the issues of Officer Safety and the dos and don’ts when interacting with individuals who are attempting suicide. Numerous films were shown with individuals who displayed various mental problems, in order for officers to be able to identify potential suicidal individuals.
A handout provided to police academy students in Delaware County (PA) provides some tips on dealing with suicidal or mentally impaired persons. Some of the recommendations are summarized below:
- Most potential suicidal individuals are not trying to escape from life; they are trying to get rid of a problem.
- Suicidal individuals are emotionally disturbed. The officer is there to control the situation and turn the individual over to a qualified individual that can provide the supervision and treatment needed.
- Ordinarily, a suicide threat is a desperate appeal for help. However, some individuals threaten to take their lives in order to put pressure on loved ones. Other cases may involve mentally deranged individuals.
- Officers should use all assistance available to them in dealing with the individual, including other officers, relatives, clergy, mental health personnel, social agencies, etc.
- Suicide cases are handled more effectively if the dispatcher and officer act as a team.
- Unless the call is urgent, size up the situation, plan ahead and keep the dispatcher informed.
- Stay calm and in control. The potential victim can sense the mood of the officer.
- Display a caring attitude toward the individual.
- Offer hope and help. Advise the individual that you will seek assistance for him/her.
- Approach as a friend, do not overemphasize police authority. Emphasize that the officer is there to help.
- Stall for time. Some suicidal individuals have a tendency to lose their nerve and back down.
- Encourage the individual to talk about him/herself.
- When the subject is under control, turn him/her over to paramedics or crises personnel.
- Insure officer safety. If a person shows signs of mental instability, treat them as a suicidal threat.
- Until confirmed, treat all suicide cases as potential homicides. Preserve evidence.
All public safety personnel who deal with individuals who have suicidal tendencies should have training in order to help insure the safety of the officer and the potential victim. Training is an essential component of officer safety and in the issue of dealing with suicidal persons, it is extremely important.
John M. Eller has been Police Chief in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, since 1981. In addition to being the Police Chief columnist for 9-1-1 Magazine, he is a certified police instructor, consultant, criminal justice instructor, and weekly newspaper columnist. Chief Eller retired in 2012, and is now active as a consultant for the Commonwealth of PA, Department of Community and Economic Development, Governor's Center for Local Government Services.