This article originally appeared on VICE US
Kevin Briggs worked for the California Highway Patrol between 1990 and 2013, during which he spent the majority of his time on the beat that included the Golden Gate Bridge. While it offers some of the most majestic views in the world, there's a dark side: It is the most popular site in the United States for those attempting suicide. Here's the story about what that was like in his own words.
I arrived to the Bay Area on December 5, 1983, just after a stint in the Army. I remember that because it was my birthday. In 1987, I started with the Department of Corrections, and in 1990, I joined the California Highway Patrol.
I worked in Marin, a very big beat that starts just across the Bay and then goes into San Francisco County via that Golden Gate Bridge. Marin handles the bridge. So, I started working down there, and really liked it, but I didn't know it had this big dark side to it. People didn't talk about it much. There were four to six calls every month about a suicidal subject on the bridge, which was called "suicide proof" by Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer in charge of building it.
"Suicide from the bridge," Strauss said at the time, "is neither practical or probable." According to the Bridge Rail Foundation, an organization dedicated to stopping suicides from the bridge, nearly 1,600 people have leapt to their deaths since the bridge opened in 1937.
When I first found out this was part of the beat, I was angry. I had no training in this. This was a disservice to those people who'd climbed over the rail, and also a disservice to me. We've come a long way since. Now veteran officers and psychologists take these calls.
My first call was a lady who was quite despondent, and may have been homeless. She had that very tough kind of life like most people who decided to go over the rail. Typically, they'd been going through things for a number of years. The majority suffered from mental illness, generally depression. I didn't know how to approach, and I was stumbling with my words. I was having a tough time with it, but she eventually did come back over. To be honest with you, I think she had more sympathy for me, because I was a mess.
As cops, you're taught to take charge of situations. You get in there, handle it, move on. But with mental illness cases or negotiations, you calm down. You need to take your time and develop rapport. What I started doing was walking up to these folks, keeping a bit of distance, and asking their permission to approach. "Can I talk with you a little bit?" To have a cop ask their permission always surprised them and set us on a good path—most of the interactions people have with police is of us giving orders. Once I got permission, I tried to get below them. If they could look down on me, that was a plus. So I'd kneel down and get them to look through the rails at me.
Sometimes you'd get drivers yelling from their cars. 'Jump! Hey, jump, man! It'll be good pictures!'
In the job, you use active listening skills, open body language like not crossing your hands or arms. You never ask questions that begin with "why," because their answers could point to blame. It's very important not to judge, to let them tell their story as long as they want to keep talking. You say things just to let them know you're paying attention, not to interrupt. You need to pay attention. It's a lot of work, you're tired in the end.
We didn't typically reach over or through the barrier to grab a potential jumper. I've had to wrestle with some folks when they were trying to get over the rail. But once they're over you don't. If you try to grab someone, their first instinct is to scoot away. I don't want to lose them that way. But probably the biggest reason you don't attempt to pull them back is that it's so empowering for them to come back over on their own. It takes so much courage to do that.
Sometimes you'd get drivers yelling from their cars. "Jump! Jump, man! It'll be good pictures!" Some nonsense like that. Traffic is stop-and-go with people gawking, and these folks are going to be a couple minutes late getting home, so they'll roll down their window and shout. All that rapport you'd try to develop was out the window then because the person is like, "See, nobody cares!" It set you back.
I lost two people that I spoke to directly. One I wasn't with for very long. He was a really nice guy. Wouldn't tell me his name. Wouldn't tell me how he got to that situation, what his story was. But something was going on in his life, and finally he just turned around, shook my hand, and said, "Kevin, I have to go. My grandmother's down there." His grandmother had passed. He thanked me and jumped. There was nothing I could do.
People often ask, why there? Why the Golden Gate Bridge? It's the bridge itself, and the romance associated with it. Most people jump in mid-span of the bridge and think it's a gateway to somewhere. They think the water is cleansing. They want to see the view before they go. A lot of people have said they know it will get the job done. They're right. After someone jumps, they experience a free fall of four to five seconds. The body strikes the water at 75 miles per hour. That impact shatters bones, some of which puncture vital organs. Most die on impact. Those who don't most likely flail in the water helplessly and drown.
If you lose someone, of course it affects you. We used to deal the old school way—go out, have a drink, shut your mouth, come back and do your job. But now it's getting better. We can see a counselor free of charge, and have confidentiality. Also, if you talk to someone who jumps, you don't handle the case anymore. Another officer takes over. They'll go to the Coast Guard, see the body, talk to witnesses, do a report. Which is a good way of doing it. I don't want to go down and see what I refer to as my failure.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call 90101 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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