As mental health resources shrink, police become front line, with lives at stake

April 19, 2011

The call came in at the height of the evening rush hour: A man was threatening to jump off an old railroad bridge on Route 1 in Fort Belvoir. Moments later, racing down Richmond Highway, was his best hope for coming down alive.

Leanna Wilson isn’t a doctor or a nurse or a social worker. She’s a Fairfax County police officer, and, like officers across the country, she has ended up on the front line of the American public mental health system, doing a job she didn’t sign up for, trying to fill holes she didn’t create.

In her 12 years on the job, Wilson, 36, had encountered suicidal people. But she’d never confronted anyone on the verge of carrying out the threat.

“All I thought . . . was, ‘I got 30 seconds to think about what I’m going to talk to this guy about,’ ” said Wilson, who had no idea whether he was armed.

She had a .40 caliber semiautomatic sitting on her right hip and a black Taser strapped to her left leg, but she wasn’t counting on using either. This, she thought, was going to take talking.

Six months earlier, Wilson had been back at the county police academy for a weeklong class on dealing with people in mental crises. Patience, she’d been told, is essential. So is taking the time to connect.

Now, as dusk fell on Fort Belvoir, she was going to find out whether the training would make a difference for this one man.

“Game on,” Wilson said to herself as she prepared to scale a dirt hill leading up to the dilapidated track bed.

Volatile and sometimes deadly confrontations between the police and the mentally ill have been more common since state psychiatric hospitals began to discharge large numbers of patients in the 1960s and 1970s.

In response, police departments throughout the United States, including those in Montgomery, Arlington and Fairfax counties and the District and Alexandria, have launched “crisis intervention” training to create cadres of officers with more than just an hour or two of mental health training.

Now, with financially strapped state and local governments cutting community-based mental health programs, the pressures on police could mount as more people become untethered from treatment.

Perhaps more than any other police force in Virginia, Fairfax’s has seen up-close the fallout from a shrinking mental health system.

It was along Route 1 that an unarmed 52-year-old man with mental illness was shot and killed by police in 2009 after he had ripped flowers out of a planter. And it was outside the county police station in Chantilly that two officers were killed almost five years ago, shot by a disturbed 18-year-old whose family had struggled to obtain care for their son.

Never before had a Fairfax officer been slain in the line duty.

Wilson was working that day and remembers the harrowing transmissions that came over the radio after gunfire erupted outside the Sully station May 8, 2006.

Detective Vicky O. Armel and Officer Michael E. Garbarino were mortally wounded. So was the shooter, Michael W. Kennedy, who was felled by other officers.

As Wilson was describing her encounter with the suicidal man on Route 1, her mind drifted to Armel and Garbarino, and to Kennedy.

Did any of them have to die, Wilson wondered? “What if somebody had sat down and changed his meds,” she asked of Kennedy, “or somebody had convinced him to get help?”

“We wouldn’t have those two names on the wall.”

Taking time to talk

At first, the man refused to let Wilson join him on the bridge. But after she explained that she couldn’t hear him well enough from the road, he agreed to let her come up.

“Just you,” the man warned.

Built as a supply conduit for the Army base, the nearly 16-foot-high crossing had been out of use since at least the 1980s. The iron rails are still intact across much of the 195-foot-long span, but the wooden beams below are pocked with holes big enough to swallow someone’s step.

“I am deathly afraid of heights,” Wilson said. “I stepped out on the bridge, and I almost fainted.”

The man was about 30 feet away, she said, far enough that he could leap before she would ever have a chance to grab him. If this was going to end well, the man would have to be talked down.

In a job that rewards and even relishes action, taking the time to talk to a troubled soul is no small matter. An officer who lingers at a call can be razzed by colleagues, Wilson said.

“It’s just so much easier to put the handcuffs on, take them to jail and you’re done with them,” said Wilson, a former Army reservist who double-majored in criminology and sociology at Roanoke College. “But you’re not solving anything.”

During the county’s crisis intervention training, which is coordinated by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board and has been completed by about 150 Fairfax officers, one boss after another hammered home the importance of listening to those in crisis.

It came naturally to Wilson, who’d set her sights on becoming a police officer the day a K-9 unit visited her Prince George’s County elementary school. “Yeah, that’s what I want to do,” she remembers thinking.

She was 24 when she graduated from the academy and started patrolling the Route 1 corridor. The job gave her exactly what she was looking for: career security and the chance to help people such as the desperate man on the bridge.

So, with traffic backed up in both directions on Route 1, she tried to initiate a conversation with him.

In fitful snippets, she learned fragments of his story: He had lost his house and then his job, and he had spent time in the psychiatric ward at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital.

Later, she would learn more. That he was 31 and college educated. That he had been a federal contractor, working overseas at U.S. embassies. But when his home here was mistakenly placed into foreclosure while he was on assignment in Madagascar, the man’s security clearance was jeopardized, and his company cut him loose.

“His world,” Wilson recalled later, “ had just gone right into the sinkhole.”

As they talked, he kept one foot planted on the edge of the bridge.

‘This is not our job’

On a rainy morning last month, about a dozen Fairfax officers were on the roof of the county police academy learning what it’s like to confront someone on the edge.

A man in black pants, black windbreaker and black sunglasses was talking about the voices he was hearing.

“I’m following orders, but I don’t want to die,” he told officers Brian Bowers and Sabrina Gonzalez.

The man was a few feet from a plunge that could kill him.

“I don’t want you to die, either,” Bowers responded. “I want you to talk to me.”

“The being is always sending me messages telling me I’m bad,” the jumper said.

“I don’t think you’re bad,” Bowers said.

“You’re not bad,” Gonzalez said.

It was the sort of role-playing that Wilson had gone through six months earlier. Now, other officers were listening to lectures on bipolar disorder, drug addiction, hoarding and autism, and taking turns wrestling with when to act and when to listen.

“I would have handcuffed you in 90 seconds,” Officer Joseph Thompson later told David Florence, the retired mental health worker who played the role of the suicidal schizophrenic on the roof.

Sure, Thompson had engaged in the kind of back-and-forth that the exercise encouraged. But the four-year veteran never would have done that in a real-life situation, he said.

With his hands in his pockets and refusing to retreat from the edge, the schizophrenic was a potential threat — perhaps to himself, perhaps to the officers, Thompson said. “I’m not going to talk to you for 20 minutes when you could have two guns in your pockets.”

It was one of many efforts that week by Thompson and other officers to make sense of their evolving roles. More than one asked why they were doing what they saw as other people’s work and what had happened to the state’s mental health system.

“This is not our job,” one officer said during a discussion of Virginia’s commitment laws.

Like almost a dozen other states, Virginia has been cutting back inpatient and community care for the mentally ill, according to a recent report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

And even in Fairfax, where the county’s wealth helps supplement state mental health funding, the mental health mobile crisis unit hasn’t grown since it was created three decades ago. Since then, Fairfax’s population — and the police force — have each nearly doubled in size.

So, much as in 1981, a single mobile team of two mental health workers is available at any given time, which often means that police are on their own.

A hand to clasp

The mobile crisis unit, headquartered in Annandale 13 traffic-choked miles from Fort Belvoir, never made it to the bridge. One of the police department’s crisis negotiators, Officer Tommy Thompson, arrived about a half-hour into the standoff.

He knew Wilson, and he was encouraged that she was the one on the bridge. “He hasn’t jumped,” Thompson remembers thinking, “so she’s doing something right.”

Now he needed a way to join her. It was getting cold, so he took Wilson her coat.

Once he delivered it, the jumper was adamant that Thompson retreat, which he did, but not before whispering a message to Wilson.

“You have to convince this guy to allow me to come back,” he said.

Wilson did what she could to talk up Thompson, telling the man what a good guy he was. About 10 minutes later, she nodded to Thompson, who walked out “nice and slow,” he recalled.

The man still was standing at the edge and wasn’t saying much.

For a moment, he opened up. He had checked himself out of Mount Vernon Hospital after a conflict with the staff, and he had lost his spot at the county-run homeless shelter just south of the bridge.

But even as he talked, the man continued to flirt with the edge. “Please don’t do that!” the officers shouted again and again.

At one point, he stepped away from the edge. Then, without warning, he returned to the precipice. Wilson imagined the nightmares she would have if he jumped. “You don’t ever want that to be an image in your head,” she said.

Finally, the man began to take a couple of steps toward them. It was dark. Nearly an hour had passed since the call first came in.

“Grab my hand. Grab my hand,” Wilson said as she and Thompson stepped slowly backward, leading the way off the bridge.

Officers converged, but no one moved to tackle or handcuff the man. Instead, Wilson took his hand.

“That was my handcuff, holding him,” she said. “It was also saying, ‘Thank you, that you allowed us to come into your life, that you allowed us to help you.’ ”

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