LAST WEEKEND, between 7 Saturday evening and 7 Sunday morning, there were 713 calls to Fairfax County 911 for an array of accidents, fires, domestic incidents and crimes across the sprawling suburban jurisdiction of 1.1 million people. One stood out.
At 1:41 a.m. Sunday, the county’s Department of Public Safety Communications in Fairfax City received a call from a woman whose daughter’s boyfriend, in Clifton, was threatening to kill himself. The man, a 21-year-old student, was reportedly armed; he also had a history of suicide attempts. According to the caller, the man told his girlfriend he had two methods in mind: crashing his motorcycle or committing “suicide by cop.”
Within a few minutes, police patrol cars were at the scene — a house, belonging to the man’s parents, in a leafy neighborhood a few miles east of Manassas National Battlefield Park. The officers made contact with the man’s parents and secured a perimeter. About 30 minutes had passed when at least one officer heard the unmistakable and dreaded sound of a semiautomatic weapon’s slide being “racked” to chamber a round.
The parents were evacuated from the house, and the man’s father told police that his son was in the garage holding a handgun to his own head. The officers then settled in to what might have been a lengthy standoff as they waited for a SWAT team to be assembled and arrive.
But only a short while later, at 2:43 a.m., Carrie Weiland, a Fairfax 911 call center employee, reached the man in the garage on his cellphone. Ms. Weiland, who like many call center staffers has basic training in negotiations, spoke to the man sympathetically, asked about his plans to return to school, assured him the police were there to help and coached him on how to surrender — on his knees, hands visible — so that no one would be hurt.
According to the report by Fairfax 911, Ms. Weiland was on the phone with the man for no more than about 10 minutes, but something she said, or some quality in the way she said it, evidently worked. Shortly before 3 a.m., the man emerged from the house — on his knees, as instructed — and surrendered. He was taken to a county facility for psychiatric evaluation; no criminal charges have been filed.
Fairfax police and 911 handle several thousand calls each year involving threatened suicide, though few specifically mention “suicide by cop.” They receive thousands more about people who are in some way upset or emotionally disturbed. A few of those calls end badly; most are defused. When they are defused, it is often thanks to the unrecognized efforts of professionals such as Ms. Weiland, whose composure helped save the day.