Law Enforcement Response to Suicide Calls a Matter of Life & Death

NAPLES, Fla. -- Bradley Wasserman held a shotgun to his head.

Collier deputies surrounded the 55-year-old as he stood inside his North Naples home with his finger on the trigger.

In Sarasota, Phil Wasserman and his wife, Diane, listened to the 1 a.m. standoff on speakerphone. They heard noises, then pleading -- "Sir, don't do it."

Diane covered her ears. Phil expected the worst.

"I literally thought that I was going to listen to my brother die," Phil Wasserman said. "On a scale of 1 to 100, I was 100 percent certain he was dying right there."

Southwest Florida officers respond to hundreds of threatened and attempted suicide calls every year. How fast they get there and how they handle the delicate situation can mean the difference between life and death.

"People don't realize these guys are risking their lives. They're not paid a zillion dollars," Phil Wasserman said. "They were ultra professional, they were calm and, to be blunt, I think they're the reason he's still alive." Suicide Suspects: Ever Feel Responsible? 

Last year, Lee County deputies received 858 calls for suicidal subjects, a number that includes every call initially described as a suicidal subject.

Collier deputies responded to 71 suicide calls during that period -- a significantly lower number likely because the agency keeps track only of calls that had a written report and were verified as a threatened, attempted or actual suicide.

Patrol deputies are typically the first responders to a suicide. They'll suss out what's needed and make calls for backup, EMS, SWAT or whatever else seems appropriate, said Lt. George Welch, who coordinates the Collier County Sheriff's Office's crisis intervention team (CIT).

A suicide call involving a barricaded subject with a gun -- like Bradley Wasserman -- is not common, local CIT coordinators said. More often, officers are called to the home of someone making a passive suicide attempt like an overdose.

But when a SWAT team or negotiators are needed, it's critical to keep the conversation flowing, said Lt. J.J. Carroll, who responded to the standoff involving Wasserman.

"You really can't convince them not to," he said. "You have to dialogue with them and not give them a chance to do what they want to do ... We try to find some things in their life that are positive, things that might spur them not to do what they want to do."

Most law enforcement officers in Collier and Lee have some level of CIT training, which helps them understand and deal with mental health situations. The training lasts 40 hours and pairs up officers with mental health professionals who teach them how to de-escalate a suicide situation.

Law Officer Forum: How much CIT training do you have?

Many times, though, people with thoughts of suicide do not pose an immediate threat, said Naples Master Officer Bill Gonsalves.

"A lot of times, people just want to share what their problems are," he said. "You can listen as an officer to what the situation is and be empathetic and offer assistance."

* * *

Pills were always Jeffrey Ryan's method.

He popped them as a 13-year-old. He popped them as a Vietnam veteran. He popped them even as a mental health advocate in Naples.

They were supposed to be an aid - to help his childhood problems and then his post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead, they became a weapon.

To this day, Ryan, 65, can't say for sure how many times he's tried to overdose. Three times, four times, maybe five. Somewhere along the way, he lost track.

Suicide, he said, is hard to explain to someone who's never made an attempt. "It just," he said, pausing, pointing his index fingers to his head and twirling them forward in little circles.

"It just comes over you. It's not like a mood. It's like all of a sudden, a trigger goes off."

The last time he tried to overdose, a friend found him unresponsive at his North Naples apartment. Collier deputies arrived within five minutes.

Ryan welcomed the interruption.

"I never had a problem with the police or sheriff," he said. "I mean, I'm not a criminal."

Seven years later, Ryan said he is no longer taking medication - a plan that works for him, but he warned that's not for everyone.

But he no longer wants to die.

"Petra and I have a beautiful life," he said of his wife, the then-friend who called 911 and saved his life. "Why would I want to leave?"

* * *

In cases where a person is not cooperative, law enforcement can fall back on the Baker Act, a Florida statute which allows a person to be involuntarily committed if there is a "substantial likelihood" he or she will cause serious bodily harm to himself or herself.By the time the Sheriff's Office arrives for a suicide call, "at that point, I've got more than enough to Baker Act that person," Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott said.

But not everyone wants to be saved.

Gonsalves, of the Naples Police Department, remembers a woman several years back who was Baker Acted and seemed to improve. Over a period of a few months, she was Baker Acted and released again. That time she got her hands on a gun.

Gonsalves still drives by her house sometimes and thinks about it.

"You dealt with them and you helped, but you knew that their life still was not wonderful," he said. "Then you hear the call come out, and you know they completed the task. ... You can only provide so much help."

* * *

Phil Wasserman made it from Sarasota to Naples in record time.

At 3:27 a.m., Bradley Wasserman walked out of the house, and authorities detained him.

Bradley Wasserman remains in jail on bonds totaling $1.1 million. He is accused of threatening to shoot his wife, then himself after an argument about Miami Heat tickets he had won that day, according to an arrest report.

Phil Wasserman said his brother was being kept in the jail's medical ward. He disputes that Bradley made threats against his wife, and said the couple had been having marital problems that led him to have suicidal thoughts.

For his own safety, Bradley Wasserman will remain behind bars.

"I assure you that if we thought he was OK, we'd bond him out," Phil Wasserman said. "He needs help."

Phil and Diane Wasserman said they plan to write a letter to the Sheriff's Office thanking deputies for saving and protecting Bradley.

"We're there to help. We're the good guys," Lt. Carroll said. "We really don't want to see anybody get hurt."


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