EDITORIAL: Respond calmly to York neighbors in crisis

York Dispatch
  • The local Quick Response and Negotiating Team does vital work for our county.
  • Instances of mental health standoffs can be tense and uncertain.
  • Suicide threats are a medical issue first and foremost.
  • We advocate for a calming medical approach as a primary means for handling non-violent situations.

We hear the calls again and again over the 911 scanner: Caller is having suicidal thoughts.

The train of events begins. A police officer is sent to the house. The person inside doesn't want to talk to the officer. Other people are evacuated from the home. The original caller still doesn't want to come out.

And then the police have a choice to make. And that choice can be the difference between a calm resolution to the situation and a bad outcome.

Fire police blocked Stevens Road in Newberry Township during a standoff there Wednesday, July 13, 2016.
(Dawn J. Sagert photo)

A suicide threat reveals a mental health issue and should be addressed with medical care and non-threatening law enforcement.

This past week, a standoff came to a peaceful solution, but only after a Newberry Township man spent six hours in his own backyard with a handgun held to his own head. Police said the man was suicidal and posed no danger to anyone except himself.

Chief: Six-hour armed standoff in Newberry Twp. ends peacefully

For those six hours, heavily armed police and fire police swarmed the area, closing off the neighborhood, keeping residents away from their homes or stuck inside their homes. The officers, many in heavy tactical gear as is common during a standoff, spent six hours in the heat and sun, with a canteen from the Red Cross deployed to offer drinks and food.

After six hours, the county Quick Response and Negotiating Team (QRT), talked the man down and he was taken into custody.

The people in the neighborhood were grateful that there was a peaceful end to the incident. Officers who had been in and out of homes to keep an eye on the situation and to use the bathroom talked to kids about what had happened, showed them the mobile QRT unit, even bought a pizza to thank the residents for their understanding.

LETTER: Kudos to local police

All in all, a happy ending.

But was the six-hour drama necessary? If someone is a danger only to himself and refuses to come off his property, do police need to call in the heavy equipment and spend a whole day surrounding the man?

We understand that the police are trained in these situations. But from a community-based viewpoint, here's a potentially different scenario:

Police go to the house and the person threatening suicide doesn't want to talk. They get everyone else out of the home.

And then they mostly leave. The road remains open, there are no officers in tactical gear in people's backyards, neighbors are free to come and go. A mental health professional is on the scene and the person is assured help is available should they wish to avail themselves of it.

Then, the person gets a little space.

One or two officers remain in the area, keeping an eye on the house to make sure everything remains quiet. Eventually and hopefully, when the person with the mental health crisis is able to engage, a health care professional and officers quickly move in, take them into custody and assist them and their family in getting help.

Lt. Tobin Tech of QRT and York Area Regional Police hands out honorary badges to kids following a six-hour standoff in their neighborhood.

That's how the situation plays out in the some places, depending on the police department involved.

That isn't always the best solution either, of course. If there is a chance someone could hurt another person, police need to use all the tools at their disposal to ensure that doesn't happen.

We believe the QRT does very important work in York County, and they should be commended for taking on dangerous situations to keep the public safe.

But law enforcement tactics may not always be the best way to help a person suffering with a mental health crisis. It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Perhaps mental health professionals should be on the front line of the team for those situations with less potential for violence, with law enforcement a quiet presence as the backup. And perhaps there could be ways to de-escalate a standoff that don't involve the perceived threat heavy equipment, which could further exacerbate a mental health crisis for the sufferer.

Because these are often our neighbors in crisis, not threatening forces.

Mental illness is a medical issue first and foremost. Those with mental health issues sometimes pose a threat — but they don't always pose one. To further frighten an ill person or make them feel under attack with the introduction of military-style gear could turn a regrettable medical situation into a deadly one.