Police face challenges responding to French King Bridge calls

  • The French King Bridge is unfortunately a destination for people contemplating suicide. Local first responders and police are called upon to bring people to safety under these difficult situations. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2020 3:08:08 PM

ERVING — The French King Bridge, sadly, is a magnet for people trying to commit suicide. Town officials in Gill and Erving are aware of this, and have lobbied the state for greater investment in safety features at the bridge.

The emergency responders who are at the bridge all too often see a different side of the problem. When an emergency call comes from the bridge, they are at the scene to bring the person to safety.

Earlier this month, the Erving Police Department gave a letter of commendation to Officer James Loynd for successfully saving someone at the bridge who had apparently been preparing to jump.

Officer Loynd declined to comment on the incident. But Sgt. Robert Holst, who is the acting police chief while the town seeks a full-time replacement, described the difficult work police officers often face at the bridge, and how the policies of the state government could influence the situation for better and for worse.

“It wears on us,” Holst said. “Our officers struggle with this.”

Data collected by the town of Erving showed that, from 2009 to 2019, emergency services were called to the bridge 313 times. There were 62 people taken into custody, 14 confirmed suicides and two declared missing.

When an emergency call to the bridge comes, the officer’s ultimate goal is to bring the person into custody and check them into a hospital for appropriate medical attention, Holst said.

Ideally, the officer is able to calm the other person and convince them to return from the ledge. But, sometimes, the person has to be pulled to safety, and may even have to be restrained so they can be transported to a hospital, Holst said.

“We already know the outcome,” he said. “We know they are going to the hospital. We know that’s the outcome, but we are trying to make it as easy and peaceful as possible.”

One of the most important things is for the officer to stay calm, Holst said. The person on the bridge may be emotionally distressed. If a police officer arrives and starts yelling, he said, it will only escalate the situation.

Once the person has returned from the ledge, they are usually willing to check into the hospital, Holst said. However, when they arrive at the hospital, the officer provides legal paperwork allowing the hospital to hold the person for at least 72 hours. This is especially important in cases where the person may be under the influence of drugs, Holst said.

In cases where the person on the bridge does not calm down, the police officer may have to physically pull them back from the ledge. This is considered a use of force — meaning that it could be affected by a potential new law being considered in the state legislature.

Notably, the proposed law could end police officers’ legal immunity against being sued over use of force. Some local officers are concerned that, in cases involving the French King Bridge, they might be sued for using force to prevent a person from jumping, Holst said.

In cases where force is necessary, the proposed law might require the officer to arrest the person and charge them with a crime — which seems counterproductive to trying to help them, Holst said.

“That’s not the right answer either,” he said. “You’re taking somebody who is already in a crisis situation, and you’re adding to the crisis.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.

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