The recent spate of school attacks–beginning with Newtown–have rekindled the issue of involuntary commitment.  “We need more mental health laws!”  some cry.  “If we can only take mentally ill people off the streets, that will stop school attacks!”

As a first step in examining this issue, I reprint this true story, first posted at SMM during the summer of 2012.  It illustrates a more or less textbook case of involuntary commitment, and will serve as a touchstone for the discussion to follow in the near future.  Joe Black Wolf was clearly mentally ill under the law.  There was no issue of improperly depriving him of his rights.  However, not all cases are so clear, or so easily–temporarily–resolved.

And now, the story:

Police officers are often called upon to do things they know may not be the smartest thing to do.  Duty compels them, and in doing what may appear to be the right thing, what appears to be a kindness, they may do the opposite.

This true story illustrates that eternal contradiction of police work, a contradiction forced upon them by the fact that police officers have to deal with the human race. 

It’s Not a Good Day to Die

I came to a complete stop as I hit the intersection.  Four lanes every direction–the light was against me and even with my lights flashing and siren blaring, people weren’t catching on.  Smart cops don’t blast through intersections; they make eye contact with every driver in sight and crawl through, just in case.   If you get into an accident you have to stop, and you don’t help anyone if you get creamed on the way to an emergency.

I could see him clearly from two blocks away.  He was sitting on the ledge of the tallest building in town–the ledge of choice for flashy suicide gestures: The Hilton.  It was only eight stories high, but that was six or so more than enough to do the trick.  Great, just great.  Probably just a suicide gesture.  He’s half way over the ledge.  Most don’t go that far.  Not good.  His uncoordinated, jerky movement suggested that he was major league drunk.

My backup was still about a mile off when I arrived.  A hotel security guy was waiting at the elevator.  He was apologetic.  There had been maintenance work on a rooftop air conditioning unit and someone forgot to lockout the elevator roof access. Is this elevator slower than usual? Will he still be there when I get to the top?

He was.  And he was standing on the roof, leaning against the four-foot high ledge.  I managed to get within about 25 feet before he spotted me and clumsily oozed back onto the ledge, facing inward toward me.  Great.  I was right; he’s drunk as hell.  Looks familiar…

“Joe; Joe Black Wolf; is that you?”

“I’m gonna jump you sum’bish.  I’m gonna do it.  I wanna jump,” he slurred in an excited voice.

It’s Joe.  What is this?  His fifth suicide gesture so far this year?  

I decided to play dumb.  It was about 4:30 PM, dark and overcast.  A numbing wind pulsed over the roof, creaking and whistling eerily in the thicket of antennas and machinery. I’ll pretend I can’t hear him; with the wind, he might buy it.   I cupped my ears and shrugged whenever he said something.

“Joe, I can’t hear you,” I yelled.  ‘It’s the wind.  Listen Joe, I’m just gonna come close enough so I can hear you.  I promise I won’t come any closer, OK?”

“I’m gonna do it!  You ain’t stoppin’ me!”  Joe yelled and clumsily swung his legs over the top of the ledge, letting one dangle on each side.  I was still about 15 feet from him when he yelled something angry and unintelligible and swung both legs over the ledge.

Geez…not now!  The toe of Joe’s left shoe caught the ledge, and he pitched forward.  My mind was racing.  Any good cop tries to stay in what firearm guru Jeff Cooper calls “condition yellow.”  A relaxed alertness, it demands some degree of constant concentration and always thinking ahead.  You take in everything around you and ask “what if?”  What if that guy walking toward me with his hand in his coat pulls a gun?  What if that car that’s swerving a little toward the centerline crosses it in the next few seconds?  What will I do?  Where can I go?  What if Joe is so drunk he kills himself accidentally? 

Damn!  No way can I get to him in time if he goes over.  Man, this doesn’t look good; he’s almost lost it…  Without thinking, I hustled within five feet of him before he somehow stopped falling and slowly righted himself.  God looks out for cops and drunks, I guess.  It all took no more than three seconds.

He eyeballed me to see what I was doing.  He didn’t like me being that close, but I lucked out, at least for a few minutes.  His near fall shook him up.  Given his past history of suicide gestures, and his present fear of falling, I thought I had a reasonable chance to talk him down.

“Sum’bish!  I ain’t takin’ this no more!  You get back!  I’m gonna do it!  I don’ care!”  And to illustrate his point, he began pushing himself over the ledge until he was sitting only about halfway on the ledge and halfway into the great beyond.  He was even more shaky, a massive jolt of adrenaline mixing with the booze and whatever else he’d sucked down.

My deaf act wouldn’t work anymore.  “Joe, relax man, I’m not gonna grab you.  I just want to listen, OK?  I promise, no closer.  We’ll just talk.”  I held my arms open, palms toward him (body language counts), and gently edged toward the ledge, keeping the same relative distance between us.  I could always back off if I had to, but I didn’t want to surrender any ground.  If I could distract him with talk, he might forget how close I was.  If I had to lunge for him, I wanted to be against the edge for support.  Maybe, just maybe, his falling 180+ pounds wouldn’t drag me over with him.  Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have to release him to save myself.  Maybe I wouldn’t watch him fall only to wake up in a gasping, soaking wet adrenaline rush, over and over for the rest of my life.

Another officer was trying to come up from behind Joe, but Joe had experience.  He chose a part of the roof with a good view from all angles.  There was no real cover for my partner.  He glanced behind us and spotted the other cop.  My heart leapt into my throat.  Joe’s face got red, he began shaking and shifted his weight until just about all that kept him from doing a Superman was his shaky hands and the friction between the threadbare seat of his filthy jeans and the outside corner of the ledge.  “You ain’t trickin’ me!  I ain’t takin’ this!  I’m gonna do it this time!  I got nothin!  I’m goin!”

“Joe!  Listen to me!”  He was seriously thinking about it.  “Joe!”  I shouted as loudly as I could in my most authoritative command voice.  He winced and turned his head to look at me.  “Joe, I’m gonna have him leave; look Joe.  Watch; he’ll leave now.”  I calmly but emphatically gestured for my partner to withdraw.  He hesitated.  Cops like to act, to be in control.  If you’re not close enough to try to grab a jumper, you’ve got no control.  He didn’t like what I was asking him to do, but he backed off.

“See Joe?  He’s leaving.  Like I said, I’m not going to grab you.  Come on now, you’re awful close to falling.  Come back on the ledge a little more.  You can always jump later.  What’s a little talk gonna hurt?  Come on Joe, I’ve always been good to you, haven’t I?”

I barely knew Joe.  I arrested him for having an open container about a year earlier. I treated him humanely, but we really had no relationship.  I needed to try to create one—fast–even if it was only in his mind.

When my partner disappeared behind a huge air conditioner about 10 yards away, Joe turned his attention back to me and carefully, slowly, pulled himself back up until he was sitting fully on the ledge again.  Another good sign.  He was shaking like a palsied chicken.  Not a good sign.  He was so agitated and spastic he could go over accidentally.

“What’s up Joe?  Why are you here?”

“I don’ care,” he slurred and sadly shook his head, mumbling incoherently.

“Joe, I care.  What’s goin’ on?”  Within the last few minutes, I managed, moving millimeters at a time, to ease within about five feet.  I could jump him and stand a good chance of dumping him on the roof, flat on his back.  Even if he did jump, I’d probably be able to grab enough of him or his clothing to hold him until my partner and the small crowd of security guys and hotel staff hovering at the rooftop door could get to me and help.  Probably.

Joe started sobbing.  Turns out his relatives had thrown him out.  The Lakota have a tradition of taking care of their relatives, even distant relatives.  If one shows up, drunk and sloppy at your door, it’s the worst kind of bad manners–maybe even a betrayal of your shared heritage–if you don’t give them a place to sleep and share what you have.  Joe had even worn out that welcome, at least temporarily–quite an accomplishment.

I turned toward the ledge and appeared–to Joe–to be leaning on it, listening and nodding.  Body language is important between men, and particularly to Indians.  You don’t want to make too much eye contact, and you can’t expect every second to be filled with conversation.  White folks get uncomfortable if the air between them isn’t thick with chat.  Not so with Indians.  So I waited, nodded, and appeared to be staring off into space, relaxed, comfortable.  I could see him clearly out of the corner of my eye.  My knees were slightly bent; I was ready to pounce on him.

Joe’s problems alternated between anger at his relatives for betraying their heritage and anger at himself for being a drunk.  Joe didn’t like himself much, and he wasn’t doing any better with others.  But as we talked, he swung one leg back over to the roof side of the ledge.  Five minutes later, both legs were over the roof side.

He was facing me, and making more regular eye contact.  I turned to face him, leaning on the ledge with my left elbow.  To Joe, I was completely relaxed and no threat.  Another few minutes, and Joe was standing on the roof, but both hands still clamped the ledge.  He was letting me know that he was ready to climb back up.  There was no way I’d allow that to happen, but he didn’t know it.  I could have jumped him, wrestled him to the roof and ended it, but that wasn’t absolutely necessary.  I had the time.

“Well Joe,” I asked, “whatcha wanna do?”

He was puzzled.  I was giving him options.  He had to think about that awhile.  “I dunno,” he finally said.  He was looking for an out, a way to back down gracefully.  I had to come up with one.

I don’t know why, but a line from the classic Dustin Hoffman western Little Big Man popped into my mind.  I turned back toward the ledge and Joe did the same.  People often unconsciously mimic each other’s body language.  I gestured all around us at the overcast sky, the hazy Black Hills, and the growing swarm of evening traffic.  “Joe, look at everything around you.  The Hills, the sky; it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

He nodded gravely.

“This is not a good day to die.”

Joe nodded emphatically and we turned away from the ledge together.  Our minds were made up.

I took a step and put my left arm around his shoulders.  Joe put his arm around my shoulders.  He was big time relieved.  In a traditional Western, we’d cut our thumbs, press them together, exchange some blood and become brothers for life.  That was before AIDS–so much for brotherhood.  “C’mon Joe.  Let’s get outta here,” I said.  Joe was smiling and nodded his assent.

I didn’t put my arm around him to be friendly.  I wanted physical control in case he changed his mind.  I could feel the slightest tension or change of intent.  Without Joe feeling forced, I could gently guide him where I wanted him to go.  And with my left side to him, my handgun was safely out of his reach.  Cops always have to think about that.

We drove, conversing amiably, to the mental health lock up. Joe told me about the time his sister passed out in a low rent bar’s bathroom and nearly drowned before he found her and pulled her head out of the stool.  Man! Them was good times, wasn’t they?

At the lockup I kept Joe occupied with chat and motion and coaxed him into removing everything he was wearing that might be dangerous.  Then we sat together, cross-legged on the floor of his bare walled suicide watch cell, and I listened and nodded.  It never hurts to build up some positive capital with your repeat customers.  I was careful to sit just out of reach.

Thirty minutes later, Joe fell into a deep, boozy sleep, and I tucked him in–without a blanket–and left.  He looked content–and deflated.

I did my job, but I felt no elation.  Maybe I saved a life, but somehow I didn’t think I accomplished anything–postponed the inevitable, maybe.

Maybe it would have been a good day to die.