The Morning Report
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Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009 | Rick Carlson arrived at the State Route 163 overpass above Interstate 8, identified himself as a crisis negotiator and started talking with a middle-aged man on the verge of jumping.
They shared experiences about abuse, money and family problems as thousands of traveling motorists passed around them. Carlson stood a few feet from the man, who was hanging on to the edge of the overpass in jeans and a white t-shirt. He wouldn’t give Carlson his real name.
Frustration venting from congested motorists didn’t help. Some drivers heckled the suicidal man, yelling “Jump, stupid!” Carlson ignored the comments and kept the man talking. He searched for anything in their conversation that might edge the man away from a 60-foot fall and a disfiguring death.
The negotiation took place in the early 1990s, but the scene has been repeated recently. San Diego motorists have experienced at least three bridge-related suicide threats in the last two months. Two came during the last half of October. One incident forced downtown traffic to a grind as negotiators talked a woman down from an elevated on-ramp near Balboa Park. A week later, a woman fell from the Lemon Grove bridge over State Route 94 and died.
Law enforcement authorities declined to discuss how crisis negotiators handled the recent suicide threats, but Carlson, now 62 and a retired police officer, agreed to share some of his experiences as a crisis negotiator. He recalled the early 1990s incident above Interstate 8 because he talked with the man for nine hours and even then, it ended tragically.
“It’s a very traumatic thing. When you talk to somebody for nine hours straight, you get to know a lot about that person,” Carlson said. “You try everything you can because you don’t want to see a person lose their life.”
Nearly 2,000 people have died by suicide in San Diego County during the last five years, according to the county medical examiner. The majority of those people died by a firearm, hanging or overdose. About 130 jumped to their deaths, representing 7 percent of the county’s suicides. In those rare situations, a bridge or overpass can become a stage for the work of crisis negotiators.
“When you jump from a bridge, it can be a very public display,” said Sgt. Wayne Spees, who leads one of San Diego’s crisis negotiation teams. “The majority of the time, if we can get a trained negotiator talking to someone, we’re successful in getting them down safely.”
San Diego Police have worked with other law enforcement agencies to form three teams of trained crisis negotiators. If requested, they respond to any type of hostage crisis. But bridge incidents are different.
“If they were dead set on committing suicide, all they would have to do is jump off. When they put you in that position (on a bridge), they are forcing society to send somebody to talk to them,” Carlson said. “They’ve been trying to talk to you all along that they’ve had a problem.”
After Carlson introduced himself to people threatening suicide, he asked them to explain their problems. He listened and listened. Carlson would try to explain that suicide does not resolve problems and would instead create more distress for the surviving loved ones. In any crisis situation, he tried to show people that something in their life was more important than suicide.
In one crisis, a man barricaded himself inside a house with a gun and threatened to shoot himself. He was drunk and had been arguing with his wife. Carlson talked with the man, trying to cool the moment, and mentioned a dog inside the house.
“The guy, when we’re talking to him, says, ‘Please don’t hurt Fluffy.’ Well, then you know you’ve got an opening in the conversation. You know that he’s emotionally attached to the dog,” Carlson said.
Carlson told the man that police couldn’t guarantee the dog’s safety if the man or police started shooting. Carlson convinced the man to carry the dog out of the house so it would be out of harm’s way. After the man walked out, he was arrested.
“It was more important to him to bring his dog out safely than to take his own life,” Carlson said. “You try to find that key in everybody’s life, just something to point out that there is, in fact, something in your life worth living for.”
Carlson said he always tried to share his own experiences to help level with people. He grew up with a physically and emotionally abusive father, giving him some familiarity with working through tension. He also regularly dealt with loss as one of San Diego’s homicide detectives. Today, Carlson is president of the San Diego Police Historic Association and oversees the local police museum.
When I asked Carlson to sit down and talk about some of his experiences as a crisis negotiator, he pulled out a file of pictures from the tragic incident over Interstate 8. A news photographer had captured the man’s deadly fall but never published the photos. Carlson wanted copies of the photos to show in a classroom setting. But they also bring back memories.
“He said, ‘This is my world out here and when I’m tired of talking to you, I’m going,’ ” Carlson recalled. “He told me, ‘You’re doing all the right things. Why don’t you get me a piece of paper and I’ll write you a commendation.’
“A lot of negotiators will hold themselves personally responsible because when you’re negotiating, you’re talking for the mayor, the City Council, the police department, and it’s your responsibility to deal with that person. The negotiators have to mentally take care of themselves afterwards. We’d go somewhere away from everybody else and just sit down and talk about it. You know, talking helps.”
Carlson said the man on Interstate 8 was the only person to ever jump while he was negotiating. Carlson didn’t watch the fall. He stepped away from the edge and heard the impact. It is one of the most vivid events of his 35-year career. He remembers it today when people talk about police officers or suicide, or when he drives by the scene.
“I probably think about it a couple times a week,” Carlson said. “It always sticks in your mind because it was so spectacular. … I couldn’t believe he actually jumped.”