Thursday, June 20, 2024

September is Suicide Prevention Month: How local law enforcement are trained to help

Can local law enforcement agencies in the Historic Triangle deal with public suicide attempts or other mental health situations? (WYDaily file/ Courtesy of Unsplash)
Can local law enforcement agencies in the Historic Triangle deal with public suicide attempts or other mental health situations? (WYDaily file/ Courtesy of Unsplash)


One word with such force that it sends shock waves, first to those directly affected, then to the rest of humanity as a whole.

A loved one. An acquaintance. A high school sweetheart. A neighbor.

More importantly, the names of those who have died are forever etched in the hearts of those they left behind.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is among the leading causes of death in the United States. Based on recent nationwide surveys, suicide in some populations is on the rise.

A 2018 news release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated suicide rates have been rising across the U.S. It’s the 10th leading cause of death, and in 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide.

Stephanie Williams-Ortery, spokeswoman for the James City County Police Department, said the department responded to 257 calls related to attempts or concern for themselves or another individual in 2019. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year, they have received 150 calls.

Since the beginning of this year, the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office has had 12 reports written for suicide attempts.

“We have had 160 calls for service which could be from someone who just wants us to check on a friend or family member to someone who is actually contemplating taking their own life,” Shelley Ward, spokeswoman for YPSO, wrote in an email.

So it begs the question, how are emergency responders, such as police officers, trained to assist people dealing with mental health issues and suicide attempts?

Williams-Ortery, said all officers in James City County are trained to recognize suicidal tendencies and proper response etiquette, along with de-escalation.

James City County Police, YPSO and Williamsburg Police Department are also members of the Colonial Area Crisis Intervention Team.

“All law enforcement officers in VA receive some training related to responding to individuals with mental health issues; however, JCCPD officers attend CIT training on a voluntary basis,” Williams-Ortery wrote in an email.

“Officers certified in CIT participate in an intensive 40-hour training program covering topics such as signs and symptoms of mental illness, suicide assessment and prevention, alcohol and drug assessments and issues and more,” Williams-Ortery said.

The James City County Police Department currently has 59 certified CIT officers with five scheduled to complete the training next month, and Williamsburg Police Department has 23 officers who are CIT trained and three CIT instructors. YPSO did not say how many of their deputies were trained or certified by CIT.

So how has the training paid off, and how do officers use their training in the field?

“Because these situations can be unpredictable, we will send two officers to a call where there is a chance someone is suffering with a mental health crisis,” said Williamsburg Police spokesman Charles Ericsson.

Ericsson added the Williamsburg Police Department also works with Colonial Behavioral Health, and they have a Crisis Intervention Team Assessment Center located at Riverside Doctor’s Hospital.

“If we end up in a situation where we need to take custody of someone and transport them to the CITAC for a mental health assessment, by having two officers we are able to do so in a safe manner. Again, our goal is to get the person the help they need,” he said.

Williams-Ortery said James City County Police has a Crisis Negotiation Team. CNT members are responsible for negotiating the safe surrender of subjects in various situations.

“CNT is comprised of sworn full-time and auxiliary officers as well as a mental health liaison. All members have received negotiations training and participate in monthly training,” Williams-Ortery said.

As for the possibility of officers receiving more training in prevention and de-escalation, Ericsson said, “more training is always welcome, however our partnership with Colonial Behavioral Health and other local mental health resources provide our officers with the tools we need to effectively assist our citizens in crisis.”

Despite local law enforcement agencies in the Historic Triangle having received mental health awareness training, neither department has reached out to one local resource who could shed some light on suicide, act as consultants or just offer advice: Williamsburg Survivors of Suicide Loss.

“No, I think that would be a great idea if they did,” said Charlotte Moyler, who runs the group, adding she has given Williamsburg and James City County literature about the group at the downtown library. “But no they have not contacted us.”

Moyler’s daughter, Maggie died of suicide on Sept. 13, 2011. The Jamestown High School senior was just 17 years old.

In the aftermath of Maggie’s suicide, the police department relied on a chaplain to provide support to Moyler, who was not home when her daughter died.

While she was not sure if law enforcement was trained to deal with something like a suicide, looking back, Moyler said she feels it would have been better if they had a mental health professional instead of a police officer who met her at the house.

Moyler recalls the police officer tell her “we’re trying to protect her,” asking her to go back to her car so she would not go into the house. But then he asked Moyler if there was a gun in the house to which Moyler thought to herself “my God, she’s been murdered.”

The chaplain was not there when she arrived at the house.

“It’s almost been nine years since it happened,” she said. “It would have been better to have someone there to be with me. It might have been helpful if that one officer had more training.”

“I mean they could’ve done a terrible job and let me see her,” she added.

There’s an organization in Ohio started by those who lost loved ones to suicide, she said. Members go to the scene to help support the family. While Moyler does not feel she could do that, she would be open to helping law enforcement.

“We would be more than happy to speak with them as survivors of a successful suicide,” she said. “We would very much like to be…we certainly don’t like getting a lot of survivors in our group, because that would mean more suicides.”


If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Williamsburg Survivors of Suicide Loss typically meets on the first Thursday of each month from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Hospice House and Support Care of Williamsburg, 4445 Powhatan Parkway. One-on-one sessions are available. Due to the coronavirus, since March, the group of survivors has been meeting via Zoom sometimes once a week or lately, twice a month. For more information, call Charlotte Moyler at 757-903-1641.


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