Disaster police stations could be traumatizing
EDITOR’S NOTE – This story contains a discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
The videos are difficult to see.
In one, a man dangles over the edge of an Oklahoma City flyover, his legs swinging in the air as the police grab his arms and drag him off the precipice. In another, a woman hangs high above the Los Angeles harbor as half a dozen police officers drag her headlong up the side of the bridge. The panicked voices of the police shout: “We have you, we have you!” just before they nail her to the ground and pull out the handcuffs.
The short clips were posted on official law enforcement social media accounts, part of a longstanding practice by law enforcement agencies to showcase their life-saving efforts online – especially in 2021 as the desperation for the positive press amid allegations of excessive violence and Racism is growing after the assassination of George Floyd, and gun violence and murders are rising.
But with renewed attention to the interactions of officials with people suffering from mental health problems, experts and lawyers take one more look at these posts to see if they are exploiting the very victims law enforcement agencies have just rescued.
“It’s like we’re living with them in this tragedy,” said Kevin Berthia, a mental health attorney who survived his own suicide attempts. “How does this not create trauma for others now? Who else does this trigger? “
The posts are easy to find on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Police departments across the country can upload them without the permission of the person in crisis – although their identity is concealed – without warning about the content and without consulting psychiatrists.
Debbie Plotnick, vice president of state and federal advocacy for Mental Health America, checked out half a dozen from across the country.
“Yes, they helped bring down a person and that is commendable,” she said, but added, “I don’t see any value in helping people’s mental health.”
While police say mental health is their priority, the footage seems to tell a different story. Law enforcement agencies have long tried to showcase the harrowing and dangerous work of fighting crime and saving lives, and the feeds also include officers giving birth, kind acts and force demonstrations.
New York police, along with pictures of smiling cops, often tweeted detailed captions detailing the exact pier someone jumped off or the number of pills they swallowed before the officers “rescued” them. Other posts contain videos from the scene.
However, the American Association of Suicidology strongly suggests that any reporting of suicide or attempted suicide include neither the method nor the location. The association recommends excluding photos and videos from the crime scene, even if the person’s identity is concealed.
The NYPD declined requests for comment.
Fearing copycats, some experts say that such detailed posts – like the recent Los Angeles Police Department posts showing body cam footage of the woman attempting suicide on the bridge – are essentially a handbook for the vulnerable.
“Here’s a spot on the bridge that literally took six uniformed police officers to pull this person over the side,” said Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology.
The LAPD declined to comment but said in a statement that it did not have a specific policy in these cases. The agency said it strives to protect the person’s identity but does not usually seek prior permission.
In the 55-second video, posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram less than a month after the incident, police were called to the bridge in San Pedro after the woman climbed over the page. The scene is full of tension – the rushing wind, the panicked breathing of the woman, the squeak of the radios echoing from the metal of the bridge, the click of handcuffs.
“Great teamwork resulted in her getting the help she needed,” the LAPD reads with a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. “Remember, you are never alone and there is always help.”
In Oklahoma City, the evacuation video posted on the Police Department’s Facebook page in May includes body cam footage and interviews with responding officers. The man’s face is blurred despite the fact that the department did not seek his permission before the video was released.
The last clip shows the man being loaded into a patrol car with the text: “After the man was rescued, the officers took him to the hospital and started getting him the help he needed.” The National Suicide phone number Prevention Lifeline follows.
Master Sgt. Gary Knight, an Oklahoma City Police Department spokesman, said the goal is to show residents how the officers’ actions saved the man’s life during the two-hour incident.
“The last thing we ever want to do is prevent someone in crisis from recovering,” Knight said. “We’re not out here trying to make anyone’s condition worse. That’s why we came up first and foremost – to try to help this person. “
Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of Minnesota-based Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, said such social media posts could actually deter viewers from calling 911 for fear that they could also be handcuffed or arrested.
“It’s too complex a subject to be summed up in a video like this,” he said.
Ronnie Walker agrees. Her stepson died of suicide when he was a college junior.
“It was really devastating for everyone who knew and loved him,” she said on the occasion of the 26th anniversary of her stepson’s death. “It was like a grenade went off in our family and everyone was wounded in their own way.”
One look at the police stations, Walker said, could be slightly traumatizing for people who have lost loved ones to suicide.
“I don’t want to dismiss the heroism of the police or that they have kindness in their hearts,” she said. “I just don’t see some of these videos as portraying or conveying that. It’s more sensational. ”
Police in Appleton, Wisconsin – a town of 74,000 residents north of Milwaukee – took a different approach. They debated for almost a month before going public in February with an eight-minute suicide intervention video that is much less explicit than others. They also asked permission from the man in crisis and his family and worked with psychiatric organizations.
“Will that be positive for our church? Will this actually lead to the conversations we want to have about mental health? ”Said Lt. Meghan Cash. “Or is that just a video?”
In recent years, officials overseeing suicide hotspots like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the George Washington Bridge, which connects New York City and New Jersey, have worked to put in place prevention or deterrence systems.
Approximately 30 people die of suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge each year, and over 150 more people attempt suicide there each year. Many come into contact with the 36 members of the Bridge Patrol – whose Captain David Rivera hopes new mental health conversations, like Simone Biles’ Olympics discussions, will encourage people to seek help.
Rivera’s department does not publicly post about suicide interventions, instead honoring its members and others who may have been involved in rescue operations, such as bridge workers, road workers, or officers from other law enforcement agencies.
“We can spot them and write a commendation,” said Rivera.
Berthia, the mental health attorney, went to the bridge in 2005 with the intention of ending his life. His meeting over the railing with a California Highway Patrol officer was captured in a photo that appeared on the front cover of the San Francisco Chronicle. The picture haunted him for years.
“It got me back in the day,” said Berthia. “It brought me back to the moment. It brought me back to the wind and the smell. “
Now, speaking on suicide prevention nationwide, Berthia says there is still a long way to go in mental health awareness. Still, his message to the people in crisis is hopeful.
“I need you here,” he says, “I need you here. So please call or sign up, do whatever you have to do. “
Video journalists Angie Wang in Atlanta and Haven Daley in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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