I was on duty on a cold winter night, and I had just picked up some fast food, and was headed back to the office to eat dinner. I was sitting in traffic at a busy intersection where a major bridge crosses the Ohio River. Just as the light turned green, a man pulled up alongside of my patrol car honking his horn. When I rolled my window down, he told me that there was a man who looked like he was going to jump from the bridge. As in the past, it was fairly common to receive these types of calls, which always turned out to be someone just looking over the bridge railing.
I proceeded to drive across the bridge when half way I saw a man on the outside of the railing. I wasn’t sure what I was encountering at first. Was this just a kid playing around, or was this the real thing? I stopped my patrol car in the middle of the lane halting traffic, and I got out and walked over to the man. I quickly realized that this was the real thing when the man excitedly warned me to stay back or he would jump.
What should I do? What should I say? I have no formal negotiation training, nor have I ever been in this position before. If I do or say the wrong things it could provoke him to jump. This man’s life is now in my hands, it’s all on me right now. Of course, when he warned me, I stopped and took a few steps back. I assured him that I wouldn’t try anything, and I asked him to just calm down and talk to me. Before I got out of my patrol car I radioed for back-up, so I knew I would have some help soon.
I ask the man what his name was, and he told me it was Glen. I told him my name was Joe, and I again assured him that I wouldn’t try to approach him. I ask him why he wanted to jump off the bridge, and he told me that he had nothing to live for anymore. As he said that to me he let go of the railing and started to fall backwards. My stomach dropped inside and I yelled “no.” He grabbed back onto the railing and asked me why he should stay and talk to me. I told him that I just wanted to talk for a little while, and asked him to please hold onto to the railing tight. Just then he let go again, starting to fall backwards. Again, I screamed “no,” and he grabbed back onto the railing.
By then, other police officers showed up on scene, including a Sergeant and Lieutenant. This made Glen very nervous, and a bit angry. He warned me to have the other officers back off or he was going to jump. I turned and told the others to stay back, relaying to them what Glen had said to me. Now, it was surely all on me, even the help that arrived, more experienced police officers; nobody could get close enough to help without angering Glen. As the others stepped back, I then asked Glen if he would at least put one leg over the railing, so that he would be straddling the railing. I told him that I would step back further, and I assured him that nobody else would attempt to get close. I told him that I just wanted him to talk to me without him slipping and falling by accident.
Glen complied! This was a major step, and big relief to me knowing that I at least had him talking to me now. Glen told me that he had recently lost his job and his home. He said that he was living underneath the bridge along the river bank, and that he was tired of being cold and hungry. I appealed to Glen that he must have family or friends who care about him. He said that he had let them all down, and that he was too embarrassed and humiliated to face his loved ones anymore. I told him that he had nothing to be embarrassed about, and that there was a lot of help for him to get back on his feet. I told him that he didn’t have to be cold, hungry, and homeless, and I assured him that I’d get him help.
It seemed that Glen was becoming more receptive to me, and I was really earning his trust. I asked him to put his other leg over the railing, so that he would now be fully on the sidewalk, assuring him that I wouldn’t come near him. Glen again complied. Now I knew that I had good control of the situation, and I was finally able to relax a little. As I continued talking to Glen, pleading with him to let me get him help, he began to cry. His entire body became limp as he gave into my plea. I then stuck my hand out and asked him to shake my hand, again assuring him that I wouldn’t grab him. He extended his hand and shook mine as he broke down sobbing. At that point I put my arm around him and asked him to let me take him to the hospital to get him help.
It was now over! Glen said that he would only go with me, which was perfectly fine. Heavy traffic had been stopped on the bridge in both directions for at least an hour as I talked to Glen.. Several other police officers, fire and EMS personnel were also standing by on the bridge. But I alone had been successful; I saved a man’s life.
I drove Glen to the local hospital emergency room, where he was admitted, given a warm blanket, hot coffee and a warm dinner. I stayed with Glen as he had asked me to, until his family members arrived. I had gained his total trust and I wasn’t about to let him down now. Glen was now very grateful, and repeatedly thanked me for caring about him. As it turned out, Glen had been laid-off from his job a year ago, and he eventually lost his home to foreclosure. His family had lost touch with him as he became very depressed and withdrawn. They had no idea as to what depths he had sank to. They couldn’t believe that he had come so close to ending his life.
After I eventually left the hospital I sat alone in my patrol car thinking about the last few hours. It was now very surreal to me. The more I thought about what I had just accomplished, the magnitude of the outcome, it became very overwhelming to me. I took a few deep breaths as realized the enormous potential for the ending to have gone the other way. Why me? Was it fate that I was in the right place at the right time? Or was it a divine intervention, as I was the person who could show the caring and compassion to such a distraught individual, and make a real connection with him?
Maybe it was just sheer coincidence? But whatever it was, I realized now why I had become a police officer. I learned that there is no greater reward than to have saved a human life. Yes, it was all just part of the job, but I remember wanting to be a police officer so that I could help people. Though this was an extreme event, I realized that my everyday compassion for the people I encounter, my kind words, my encouragement to do the right things, my presence in uniform, and my trusting personality, all make a difference in people’s lives. I realized that I am where I’m supposed to be in life.
A couple months later at a local police union meeting, I was presented with a life saving award, which I modestly accepted. Two of Glen’s family members presented the award to me with great thanks. Glen was still in recovery, but doing very well. A week later, I was presented an accommodation and award at a public meeting by the town council for which I worked. I guess I was being treated as a hero, but I honestly never looked at it like that. To me, it was a blessing that I could be the person to have such an impact on someone’s life.
This event changed my life forever. I’ll never forget when Glen would let go of the railing and begin to fall back. What I felt at those moments is indescribable. The fall would have been 200 feet into the icy Ohio River…..it would have been sure death. I’m not sure what it would have done to me had Glen fell to his death that night. It would have scared me forever, and it could have ended my career. This man was a total stranger to me, but it is a human life, the most precious gift from God. I thank God that it all turned out good, and I know that God was truly with me that night.