Police work done well: preventing a suicide

Posted Jan. 14, 2010, at 6:54 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — It was just another night, another shift.

Bangor police Officer Rob Angelo was in his cruiser, parked in a downtown parking lot, debriefing the evening’s events with another officer as one day rolled over into the next.

A passer-by approached them.

“There is a woman on the bridge,” the man told Angelo. “I think she’s going to jump.”

Angelo raced his police cruiser to the Penobscot Bridge. Sure enough, a young woman was there, standing on the outside of the bridge railing. Her feet were perched on a four-inch slab of concrete high above the water. Her hands clung to the cold steel railing.

Two other officers arrived at the scene around the same time. They closed the bridge to traffic.

Angelo was the first to speak. The officers hadn’t talked about who would address the woman ahead of time; it just sort of happened.

“I would characterize it as organized begging,” Angelo, an 18-year police veteran, recalled recently of the Dec. 13 incident. “But I thought for sure that she was going to end up in the river.”

The woman said that the night was the anniversary of the death of her children, who perished in a car accident a couple of years ago. She planned to take her own life, the officer said.

“She wasn’t intoxicated. She was very level-headed,” Angelo said. “It was clear she thought about this.”

Bangor police officers respond almost daily to threats of suicide or self-harm, Angelo said. He has seen plenty over nearly two decades. Most times, he said, people are looking for attention. This woman was not. She would have jumped.

Angelo’s job was to make sure that didn’t happen.

“My thought was to keep her talking long enough until the Fire Department’s boat was in the river,” the officer said. “That way, if she did jump, they could pull her from the water.”

The woman made it clear she didn’t want anyone there. She told the officers to leave her alone. That wasn’t going to happen. Angelo searched his brain for any way to develop rapport — and found one.

“It’s my daughter’s birthday,” he pleaded. “You can’t do this on my daughter’s birthday.”

For nearly 30 minutes, Angelo and the woman talked and negotiated. Finally, she relented. She agreed to climb over the railing.

But when she tried to turn around, her feet slipped from the narrow concrete beam. She dangled by her hands 20 feet above the icy Penobscot River. The only thing keeping her from falling were her hands grasping the cold metal railing.

And Angelo.

The officer, who was several feet away, saw her slip and lunged toward her. He grabbed her hands, but she was heavy.

“There was no way I was pulling her over,” he said.

Angelo held her just long enough for two other officers, James Hassard and Joe Baillargeon, to help pull the shivering woman over the railing to safety.

Officers took her to Eastern Maine Medical Center shortly after midnight. That’s where Angelo left her. He later heard that she was transferred to Acadia Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

He doesn’t know what happened to her after that. He doesn’t remember her name. He knows she was 32 years old and originally from North Carolina. Maybe she returned there. Maybe not.

“I have no way of knowing if she tried to take her life again,” the officer said solemnly.

Angelo finished his shift and went home. It was his daughter’s birthday. The next patrol shift was just around the corner.

The officer told the story almost reluctantly last week. Every shift has its own unique calls and challenges, he said. This was one for that shift.

In fact, the only reason Angelo shared the story is because Police Chief Ron Gastia saw a police cruiser video surveillance tape of the incident and thought it deserved recognition before the City Council.

Amid the day-to-day work of Bangor police officers, in between writing parking tickets and running speed traps, there are opportunities to do good, the chief told councilors at a recent meeting. This was one of those times.

Asked whether this event would stick with him, Angelo hesitated before answering.

“You never know if what you do matters,” he said. “I guess you just keep doing what you do and hope for good outcomes.”

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