Two Strasburg officers were honored this week for their bravery and quick thinking in addressing a suicide attempt in June.
Officer Paul Bernd and Officer Laura Bridges each attended a commendation ceremony and received a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Challenge Coin, an honor that Bridges said Northwestern Community Services Board gives out on special occasions.
“I’m just glad to be able to help someone,” she said. “That’s what our job is all about.”
Bernd was the first to arrive after a call of an individual causing a disturbance at 11:08 a.m. June 29. When he arrived, Bernd encountered the individual on top of a multi-story structure on the outside of a railing in a position that made it look as if the person might jump.
To protect the individual’s privacy and hope to prevent others from trying to jump off the structure, the Police Department has asked that the individual’s name, gender and location not be identified.
“Foremost, my immediate focus was on establishing a dialogue with this person,” Bernd said.
While Bernd established a rapport — getting the individual’s name and connecting on a personal level — Bridges contained the scene, handling interference of spectators and others who were trying to engage the individual.
“They were actually aggravating the situation,” Bridges said.
She also had to watch Bernd’s back to make sure he was safe while focusing on talking the individual back from the edge. She called dispatch to request a CIT-trained negotiator in case Bernd’s actions were not successful.
“But we were able to come to a resolution with the individual,” she said. “It was very successful.”
After ensuring the individual was safe, Bridges coordinated with community mental health resources that would help the individual going forward.
Bernd, who’s been on the force nearly 4 ½ years, said he’s used his CIT training skills in other ways, such as talking with people thinking about hurting themselves.
“Not specifically to this degree. [It was] more of their state of mind and not the action,” he said.
“Certainly never have I experienced anything like this,” he said. “Essentially, the clock is ticking. It’s an experience that I’ll never forget.”
CIT is a 40-hour training program that provides mental health education and teaches de-escalation skills and empathy-building exercises to provide a foundation that helps break down stigmas of those suffering from a mental health crisis, said Donna Trillio, CIT coordinator for Northwestern Community Services Board in Front Royal.
The objective is to divert victims of crisis from being jailed so they can get the treatment they need, while also increasing officer safety and public safety.
Northwestern works with all jurisdictions in Winchester and the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren to teach crisis intervention skills through CIT International. More than 30 CIT districts in Virginia are part of the international program.
When the Northwestern program started in 2009, they had only a handful of law enforcement agencies signed up for training, Trillio said. Now, she said, they have five upcoming local training classes scheduled, and they’re all full, with a waiting list for more.
Almost all of Strasburg’s officers are CIT trained, said Police Chief Wayne Sager, who called the training “a priority.”
They can also return for a refresher course once a year, Trillio said.
“It’s an evidence-based model that works,” she said. In the situation that Bridges and Bernd faced, she said CIT “helped facilitate the wonderful outcome.”
Bernd said the experience was a reminder for him that police work is not about arresting suspects and sending them off to jail.
“We as law enforcement officers are trusted to be heroes in the community,” he said.
“We want the community to know that we’re proud to be their police department." He said no resource will be spared getting people in crisis the help they need.
“I would say that that training is invaluable across every avenue that I’ve used it,” he said.
Bridges, who has been in law enforcement for five years and a police officer for three, said she’s also relied on her CIT training in various other encounters, but never to this extent.
“Just about every shift, you’re able to use these skills — being able to reach people on a very personal level,” she said. “At the end of the day, it helped save someone’s life.”