Protecting suicidal people from themselves is part of police unit's job

jmadden@herald-leader.comAugust 24, 2014 

A total of 36 officers make up the Lexington Division of Police Emergency Response Unit and command post, the team that answers the call when negotiations are needed.

The unit works as a team, wears many hats and, at times, the members end up taking their work home. Their main objective: protect citizens and save human life.

For the past several years, the city's two largest public safety agencies, police and fire, have received thousands of calls about suicides. A suicide call is one the unit is often able to resolve. It's not always easy, but the officers are good at what they do. The unit relies heavily on communication, which is critical during negotiations and standoffs. They know that time is of the essence and that the department is willing to exhaust all resources to ensure a safe outcome, said Lt. Roger Holland, who oversees the unit.

"The greater majority, between patrol officers, fire department personnel and paramedics, (are) able to resolve them," Holland said. "The outcome is the same, regardless of what resources that we have on scene. We want (a) safe resolution of it and we want to save lives, and that includes a person under these circumstances who's going through some type of crisis, who's trying to reach out for help."

Last year, Lexington police and fire personnel responded to 2,643 suicide calls. in those cases, 32 people committed suicide, according to data from the Fayette County coroner's office.

For the past five years, the number of suicide calls essentially gas remained the same, and suicide deaths have remained in mid 30s to low 40s. As of Aug. 22, the city recorded 27 suicide deaths in 2014. During that time, police and fire have responded to 1,059 calls.

Fire department Battalion Chief Joe Best said both agencies usually respond to the same calls, and emergency units assist police when medical attention is needed, depending on the severity of the call.

A risk assessment must be done to determine what is needed, Holland said. His unit, which includes 22 officers, can be called out to myriad situations, such as the NCAA tournament celebrations this spring.

"In the case of a barricade, it might not have anything to with do suicide, but it has to do with their mental state and threats that they've made ... and involves weapons that cause the scene to be a little more serious," Holland said.

But the department relies heavily on its negotiators, typically positioned in the unit's mobile command post, to "create some sense of reality of hope" and "bring someone down and kind of control those emotions," Holland said. The unit, which has 14 negotiators, works in tandem with others.

During negotiations, the first 45 minutes are the most critical, and a special skill is required, said Lt. David Biroschik, who oversees the command post.

Tour the command post and mobile unit with WKYT's Miranda Combs.

Much like Holland, Biroschik said communication was key in negotiations.

"Communication, being able to talk to somebody, quick on your feet, being able to show empathy for that person (and) being able to have the empathy," he said, are traits needed in dealing with suicidal individuals. "It doesn't work for somebody who doesn't care."

The unit is designed to be a bridge between the individual and the command post in getting help because most times the initial calls are those for help, Biroschik said.

Holland and Biroschik said there's a difference between using force, intimidation and communication, and the two measure their success by who they can help and the outcome.

Biroschik, who's been with the unit for six years, doesn't recall losing anyone.

"If we come in there and somebody says, 'I'm going to shoot myself,' ERU will go and clear an entire apartment complex ... an entire neighborhood that's within shooting range of that house, so none of those people get hurt, none of the officers get hurt and the individual doesn't get hurt."

Tactics and resources used during barricade and suicidal situations are deployed delicately in an effort not to set off the person, Holland said. Usually barricaded people are dealing with criminal charges, but sometimes it is someone who's dealing with mental issues.

There have been times when the unit was called out because a suspect was hiding in an attic or was on the run. Things can change quickly if that person is cornered and threatens to take his life.

If situations take such a turn, there's a sense of "chaos," but it must be controlled. The team cannot lose sight of the people they are serving, Holland said.

"When you're dealing with it, you're dealing with people who are in crisis, sometimes dealing with people at their worst times," he said. "Knowing that, you mentally prepare yourself. ... In all of these, there's a human element to it, and that's the important thing to understand and remember."

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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