Stopping a tragedy before it has a chance to start
It was around 7 p.m. and the sun was still shining through blue skies on a summer evening in Newport. Sailboats flitted through the harbor out to the Bay. The city streets were teeming with visitors and residents enjoying a stroll or dinner. There’s nothing like Newport in the summertime. Life is good, isn’t it?
For many of us, yes. But far above the glistening waves, on the Newport Pell Bridge, lives were about to change forever.
Newport Patrolman Mark Lubin was on his usual shift, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., just finishing a quick dinner. A call had come in from another police department: Be on the Lookout for a possibly suicidal person, tracked by phone near the Newport Pell Bridge. Officer Lubin spotted the person, who then sped away toward the bridge in his car at high speed. A six-year veteran of the NPD, this was the first time Officer Lubin encountered a situation like this.
Partway up the bridge, the driver pulled over, stopped and ran over to the side of the bridge, quickly lifting a leg over the railing to jump. Officer Lubin leaped out of his car, ran to him, pleading with him by name and tried desperately to pull the struggling person off the bridge to safety. The distraught man kept yelling that he didn’t want the officer to be hurt, to back off, but they wrestled for several precarious moments at the railing until backup arrived. Together, the officers were able to pull him to safety.
“You saved my life,” the person said.
If someone reaches out to someone and interrupts a person’s impulsive suicidal thoughts, a life can be saved. Such heroic efforts as Officer Lubin’s wrestling this man off the railing could be avoided – if people who need help, get it, through preventative mental health measures.
They talked extensively after the incident, at the hospital. Officer Lubin did a lot of listening, as he is trained and as his intuition told him to do. He could see the level of anxiety and anguish diminish as the person talked about the problems with family, money, substance abuse and other issues that had recently snowballed. “Watching his stress level fall gave me a lot of satisfaction and made me realize that this is why I do what I do,” Officer Lubin said.
It was the first time the 2015 graduate of Roger Williams University’s criminal justice program had encountered anything like this, but he has extensive training in crisis management and negotiation and emergency response. He also has a passion for helping others, particularly those with mental or behavioral health issues. He can trace this back to his own family growing up in Connecticut. His now 32-year-old brother is nonverbal and has autism, and among other things, it has taught him patience and how to be level-headed.
Newport, Jamestown, North Kingstown, Portsmouth and Bristol Police respond to scores of these calls on our bridges. You only read about the ones that aren’t averted. One in five calls to the Newport Police Department relates to a mental or behavioral health issue, says Capt. Kevin Moreira, patrol commander. That coincides with data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which also show one in five people have a substance use or mental health disorder and only 1 in 4 get professional help.
Officers are not just out to make arrests, the captain said. While there are police in some of the nation’s police departments who behave badly that’s a minority, he said. Most police officers and emergency responders do this job because they want to hep others and make the community a better place.
Captain Moreira emphasizes that the police department is a resource for the public, not just enforcement of the law.
We will make sure people are getting help they need. We want them to not be afraid of the police. We are here to help and assist the public any way we can," Moreira said.
Not every mental health crisis requires police assistance, though. If anything, he wants to cut down on the involvement of his officers to only when needed. He supports having crisis calls shift to the new 988 crisis line to cut down on mental health calls coming through the 911 public safety system.
The Newport Police Department as well as the other Newport County police departments have a great working partnership with Newport Mental Health and our mobile crisis staff. We look forward to expanding that relationship even further this March, when the Rhode Island Outreach (RIO) teams take to the road. It’s another resource that will become available to help those with behavioral and mental health issues.
RIO Staff will offer a listening ear and can defer some mental health calls away from police action or hospital ERs. Some calls aren’t made for law enforcement, and bringing them in can escalate a problem, Capt. Moreira agrees.
With all the resources available and the community-minded policing of Officer Lubin and others at the department, there is hope, but coordination of efforts will be key. If agencies, the public safety officers and emergency room personnel work together to follow up on cases, it is better for all of us and the community as a whole.
Jamie Lehane is president and CEO of Newport Mental Health in Middletown. Peace of Mind, which is co-written with Mary Alexandre, runs in The Daily News and online at newportri.com.
This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Stopping a tragedy before it has a chance to start