By Isidoro Rodriguez
On December 19, 2013, a man stood on the ledge of a bridge in Spokane, Wash., threatening to jump. Responding officers knew that if they tried to grab him, he would step off the ledge and fall into the river below.
Instead, they spent almost 90 minutes listening and talking to him, in the hopes of calming him down. Their efforts at empathy worked. The man eventually allowed himself to be taken into custody. He was placed in an ambulance, and driven to a nearby hospital. The officer who talked him down rode to the hospital with him.
That story was retold by Frank Straub, currently Director of Strategic Studies for the Police Foundation, who was the police chief in Spokane when the incident occurred.
As he described it in a recent interview with TCR, responding officers lowered tension by turning off sirens and flashing lights that might have antagonized a person in acute distress. They approached the man slowly, instead of running to him, and kept a distance so that he didn’t feel threatened or crowded.
“It demonstrated that we were truly there to help this person, to help his family, to get him connected to services,” said Straub.
The patient, empathetic approach allowed the officers to obtain the man’s name, and gave them time to contact his mental health provider who, once involved in the conversation, was able to give cues on what and what not to say.
In hindsight, the steps Spokane officers used to talk the man off the ledge seem obvious. But many police departments around the country have only gradually begun to grapple with a problem that has challenged law enforcement, as well as courts and prisons, for decades: dealing with the justice-involved mentally ill.