In Fargo, police struggle with suicides -- kids are the most difficult
The young man stood drenched in gasoline, holding a box of matches with one ready to strike. He quit responding to law enforcement. His hands grew closer and closer as he rested the match on the box. Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel stepped inside th...
The young man stood drenched in gasoline, holding a box of matches with one ready to strike.
He quit responding to law enforcement. His hands grew closer and closer as he rested the match on the box.
Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel stepped inside the fence, edging closer to the man as he forced communication.
"He was starting to get to that point where he was going to do it, and he was just building up his courage to make that commitment," Vettel said.
The man sat down, and Vettel saw his chance.
"He actually took and pulled the match apart just wide enough where I recognized I could do something, and that's when I pounced on him and was able to keep his hands separated long enough," Vettel said.
Vettel's quick response saved the man's life that day.
It's not uncommon for Fargo police to respond to calls regarding suicidal individuals on a daily basis, sometimes multiple calls a day. And sometimes the officers are too late.
Such scenes are not something easy to forget, Sgt. Jeff Skuza said.
"Every once and awhile one will strike a chord with an officer," Skuza said.
Suicides involving children are particularly tough, Skuza said.
They don't happen often, but when they do, "they do kind of stick with you."
On Wednesday, officers were called to a south Fargo residence with a report of a 12-year-old boy hanging himself with a belt in his bedroom closet and a parent trying to hold him up. The boy was transported to Innovis Health in Fargo, Sgt. Mark Lykken said.
A Cass County first responder was recently honored for saving a 9-year-old boy who had climbed onto the limb of a fallen tree hanging over the Red River and was threatening to jump.
Sometimes the suicidal impulse strikes after an incident involving law enforcement.
In some cases, individuals will commit suicide after being arrested or having a search warrant served on them, which can have an impact on the officer involved in the case, Skuza said.
Some officers have stories of pulling a car over and seeing a gun go off as they walk to the car.
Each case will affect officers differently.
"There is a professional detachment that has to come with it," Skuza said.
A peer assistance counseling team helps officers deal with the stress and what they've seen and has had success over the years, Skuza said. The process is considered psychological first aid.
"I just give it a lot of credit for retaining the people we have," said Skuza, who heads up the Fargo team and joined because he had gone to the team. "Sometimes the officer wants to talk to someone who has been there."
Vettel credits Tasers with helping officers better handle certain situations involving armed suicidal individuals, saying that in the past pepper spray was the only weapon officers could really use.
An incident involving a man with a knife with a 19-inch blade threatening to kill himself in Fargo helped persuade the department to purchase Tasers, Vettel said.
Officers responding to calls regarding suicidal individuals are also trained in verbal tactics such as reflective listening.
"Most people in those situations, they don't want sympathy, they're looking for empathy," Vettel said. "People see through sympathy pretty quickly."
Vettel received a Silver Star for the April 12, 2008, incident. He has responded to several suicide scenes that he will forever remember, but his time as a supervisor has also left him with the task of notifying the person's family of the death.
"Going to a scene of a successful suicide is bad enough," Vettel said. "The notification is worse."
Officers provide family members with information about support groups for survivors of suicide loss and are often tasked with trying to answer several difficult questions.
"The only question we can't answer is why," Vettel said.