Almanac

News - February 9, 2011

A matter of life and death

Police negotiator tells how she handles life-threatening situations

by Sandy Brundage

When Detective Christine Powell arrived at the Dumbarton Bridge, she saw a man perched on the railing with a noose around his neck, gazing down at the water. Nearby stood her fellow police officers and four of the man's relatives. "The whole time we're there, I'm thinking, 'please don't jump,'" she said.

More than an hour later, the man climbed off the railing.

A police officer for four years, Det. Powell began training as a negotiator two years ago. The bridge incident, which occurred on Dec. 11, was the second time she'd put that training to use.

The first time involved a man hiding inside a house with a gun, threatening to shoot. Although the danger was directed toward other people that time, Detective Powell said the approach to both incidents was similar.

"The first thing I say is to introduce myself on a first-name basis. Let them know I'm a person, I'm not there to exercise authority, that the police are there to help," she said.

Other officers on the bridge, including Menlo Park's Ed Soares and Nick Douglas, started building rapport, asking the man about hobbies and what he liked to do with his children. It turned out that a combination of financial struggles and a difficult meeting with a probation officer led him to think that suicide was the only way out.

"What I thought went well was absolutely the great team effort we made. We had other officers talking to friends, family, people who knew him," Detective Powell said. "Without a team effort it wouldn't have been possible."

The urge to help others that led Detective Powell to a law enforcement career didn't vanish the moment the man climbed down from the railing; she plans to check back to see how he's doing.

"A lot of us are wondering," she said. "But we know it's going to take a while before he's OK."

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