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Police Response to an Ongoing Suicide Call

Police Response to an Ongoing Suicide Call

Bruce Rodgers

Police officers responding to an ongoing suicide call should keep the following in mind. These suggestions are similar to those that officers may find helpful in other crisis situations.

1. Assume the proper mental attitude. It is often difficult for police officers to have an appropriate mental attitude since they may see the behavior of the person attempting suicide as manipulative. Perhaps officers have been called to assist this person before and feel the person does not really want to commit suicide. However, every suicide threat or attempt should be taken seriously. Achieve the proper mental attitude by reminding yourself that every human life has dignity and that your responsibility is to help this person regardless of his or her behavior.

2. Secure the scene and assess the threat to your own safety, the safety of others, and the safety of the suicide attempter. In securing the scene, try to keep as many people as possible away from the immediate action. Ongoing suicide scenes frequently resemble a three-ring circus, with squad cars, an ambulance, a fire department truck, and neighbors in close proximity. Dispense with all that is unneeded and try to keep other people clear of the immediate area. Do not be surprised when onlookers try to thwart your efforts either by making fun of the attempter or by urging him or her to go ahead with the attempt. Officers should approach the scene using all officer-safety procedures. Many suicide attempters, lacking whatever it takes to end their own life, attempt to place police officers in the role of executioner. Some suicidal subjects are perfectly willing to threaten, injure, or even kill a police officer to force police to kill them.

3. Introduce yourself and your organization, using name and title (“I am Officer Smith of the City Police Department”). This is important because it assists attempters in relating to you. Ask what they like to be called. Do not assume that because a man’s name is Kenneth, he likes to be called Kenny or even Ken. This may be the name by which the person with whom he is angry or disappointed addresses him; using it will create an unnecessary obstacle. This is especially true when dealing with juveniles, since they may interpret your use of a nickname or even a first name as a “putdown.” You might say “Your name is Richard Smith. Do you mind if I call you Richard? What do your friends call you?” or “What would you like me to call you?”

4. Give plenty of reassurance. Continually emphasize that you are there to help, that you can help, that there is hope, and that there are other alternatives to suicide. Many times it is useful to say something such as “In my experience as a police officer, I have seen people who have been as unhappy as you, and yet down the road they’re glad that they didn’t do it.” Remember that suicide prevention consists of helping people find alternatives to the suicidal act. Attempters are in this situation because they have not found alternatives and see life as hopeless.

5. Try to determine the main theme. One of two major themes will usually predominate. Either attempters are angry at someone and want that person to pay for whatever they feel was done to them, or they see life as hopeless. You can deal more directly with the problem if you know which of these themes predominates. For example, if attempters are angry at a specific person and want that individual to pay for whatever has been done to them, you might point out that there is no magic replay of the suicide act. If they have guessed wrong and the individual really is not going to feel sorry, they missed the boat. Many people in this stressful situation show magical thinking. For example, a suicide attempter may talk about making her husband pay for all the harm that he has done as if she were going to be around at her own funeral to see how sorry he is going to feel. With diplomacy, you should point out that she won t be around and that he may not feel this way at all.

If people are feeling hopeless, helpless, unworthy, and inadequate, it is sometimes helpful to point out that they can always kill themselves if talking with you doesn’t work. “But just talk to me and let’s see if we can work something out. You can always commit suicide just like right now, but let’s see if we can come up with an alternative first.”

Sometimes these approaches will be successful, but at other times you may have to confront the person with the true consequences of the proposed act. For example, a mother or father may say, “The children will be better off without me.” You can say once again “In my experiences as a police officer, this is not true . . .. I have seen children whose parents committed suicide and they are left with deep emotional scars. Children whose parent(s) commits suicide often think about committing suicide themselves and sometimes do.” Then, judging the ability of the person to handle the guilt, you might say to him or her, “Do you really hate the children that much?”

Remember that if one thing doesn’t work, try another. If your attempt doesn’t work or seems to aggravate the situation, quickly back off. It is amazing what will solve the problem and what won’t. For example, in New Orleans a man jumped into one of the canals. People threw him lifelines but he refused to grab them. He weakened as he dogpaddled to keep to the surface, while shouting that he was going to drown and life wasn’t worth living. Suddenly a rookie cop arriving on the scene drew his revolver, aimed at the man in the water, and shouted, “Come out of there or I’ll blow your goddam head off,” whereupon the man grasped the line and allowed himself to be pulled ashore. You never know what will work. Be flexible.

6. Comply with any requests if at all possible. For example, the person attempting suicide may say “Get that damn SWAT guy off the roof” or “Get those officers away from my front door.” Grant the request. This does not mean that officers should give up trying to maneuver into more advantageous positions should quick action become necessary. But if something is annoying attempters, or if they want a soda or a glass of water, grant their wish. Try to show that you understand where they are coming from and that nothing they have done so far cannot be undone.

Many times people in this situation feel they have gone too far and must go through with the act. Some even fear that they may go to jail if they don’t kill themselves. Do not deceive them but, if possible, frequently reinforce the idea that nothing has happened that cannot be undone. If they have done something that can’t be undone (for example, if they have killed somebody), point out that at least they can stop from doing any more harm or making the situation worse.

7. Remember that the person attempting suicide is in control. Attempters have seized ultimate control over their lives. If you threaten this control directly or indirectly, you may precipitate completion of the act. Someone with a gun to his head, or on the edge of a roof ready to jump, is in full command of the situation. Also remember that if attempters have a hostage and are threatening that hostage, they have control. Your job is to take control from these people in an unobtrusive way by showing your sincere desire to help them out of the situation.

8. After the crisis is over, reassure the attempters. Tell them that they did the right thing. If they surrender the gun, come down from the roof, or otherwise neutralize the situation, be quick to praise them for a wise decision. They may disagree with you, but the fact that they allowed you to convince them otherwise shows that they are probably relieved at the outcome.

Response to a Suicide Scene that Has Been Interrupted before Police Arrival

If police officers responding to a suicide scene find that the attempt has been aborted, either voluntarily or through the use of force, officers should introduce themselves by name, rank, and organization, reassuring people that they are there to help, and make certain that the necessary medical facilities are available to help if needed. If the person has to go to the hospital, officers should tell the family where the person is going and that it probably will be best if one of them follows in their own car or rides in a police car because hospital personnel will have questions that only they can answer. It may also be necessary (according to statutes of the particular state) for an eyewitness to sign a petition for involuntary commitment. At the very least, the hospital will welcome the opportunity to obtain background information on the subject. Officers should also inquire about precipitating events, whether there was a previous history, and what the family sees in terms of the future. This will enable them to complete their report more fully and accurately.

This article is an excerpt from Psychological Aspects of Police Work: An Officer’s Guide to Street Psychology by former police officer and federal agent, Bruce A. Rodgers, PhD.

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