February 11, 2014
Suicide training preps police
Three weeks to the day after an Afghan War veteran committed suicide in his truck on Delaware Avenue surrounded by police officers, 27 officers from Central New York graduated Friday from a course designed to help them deal with individuals struggling with suicide and mental diseases.
City police frequently respond to people in crisis, said Lt. David Guerrera, noting an average of 15 to 20 suicide calls each month for his department.
In March of 2013, Guerrera sent a few officers for training to become part of an Emotionally Disturbed Person Response Team.
The officers took a 40-hour course from retired Rochester Police Department Sgt. Eric Weaver, who developed it after his own seven hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts and behavior.
The course focuses on how emergency responders should act around people struggling with suicide and mental illness, Weaver said Wednesday in Cortlandville, where he was offering the course for a second year.
The class not only helps officers recognize when people are in crisis, such as when Staff Sgt. Bryon Hulsizer was struggling Jan. 17 before his suicide in Cortland, but also helps officers cope with the emotional stress after someone commits suicide, Guerrera said.
Such training is crucial for officers, said Lt. Todd Caufield, of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department, the lead agency responding to the January suicide. The Sheriff’s Department also sent patrol officers to last week’s course.
“You have to have all this continuous training,” Caufield said, “to make officers more knowledgeable, to keep the situation with the potential victim and the officers safe on both sides.”
Caufield did not comment on whether the department reviewed the January suicide or if any changes were made in the way officers should respond to similar, future situations, but he said “things were handled according to protocol.”
Police officers, who were called to check on the Hulsizer’s welfare, found him driving in Virgil and followed him into the neighborhood of Barry Elementary School before Hulsizer committed suicide near the blocked off intersection of Taylor Street and Delaware Avenue.
“We wouldn’t handle it any differently given the circumstances,” Caufield said. “Unfortunately, there was a victim there. Fortunately, there were no other victims.”
When an officer responds to a report of a suicidal person, he or she will try to talk with the individual, said SUNY Cortland’s University Police Lt. Mary Murphy, who also attended the March course.
“The approach is different than a normal approach to someone who is acting disorderly,” Murphy said. “An officer’s going in almost like a counselor.”
An officer will ask about the underlying problems causing the person to feel suicidal, Guerrera said. “Then we try to treat the problem,” he said, referring them to a variety of county services.
In 2013, University Police saw a drastic increase in the number of suicidal people taken to the hospital, Murphy said.
Typically, the department sees only two or three a year, but last year assisted in the transport of 20 people to the hospital due to suicidal behavior.
In 2012, there were also two suicides in residence halls on campus, Murphy said — the first in at least 10 years.
Murphy could not explain the increase in the number of people taken to the hospital, but wondered if it was a reflection of stress in society or simply that more people are asking for help for themselves and others.
“People in general are more aware that you don’t take people’s threats idly,” she said.
When dealing with a suicidal person, an officer knows the call can’t be rushed, Murphy said.
“You’ve got to build that trust with the person,” she said. “That’s crucial because the bottom line is you want to get them help.”
It’s up to the officer to determine if the person is a danger to themselves or others, Murphy said.
“You want to make the right decision,” she said. “It’s huge.”
If an officer finds that a person is not in danger and won’t hurt others, he or she would refer them to counseling, Murphy said.
Lots of times, the person can be talked into going for help right then, she said.
If the officer determines a person is dangerous, he or she is taken into custody and sent to a hospital.
When taking a dangerous suicidal person into custody, the safety of the people around that person and the officer is paramount, Murphy said.
“There’s times when we’ve taken weapons from people and sometimes you have to use force,” he said, including the use of a stun gun. “Sometimes it’s a drawn-out negotiation.”
“You want to go just enough to stop the threat,” Murphy said. “We don’t want it to be that force. We want them to realize we’re looking out for their best interest.”
After responding to a suicide crisis call, city police officers are assigned to follow up with that person later on, Guerrera said.
The officers try to get the person help or simply provide a listening ear, he said.
“We actually grab them by the hand and take them to family counseling appointments,” he said.
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