Community had called because she was weeping in public and appeared to have wet her pants. When a man stopped to check on her, she told him that she had no reason to live anymore. She wanted to die. The caller estimated her age (or was it a dispatcher typo?) at 92 years old. 

I am a worst case scenario peace officer. Over the years, I do “what if” scenarios as I am driving around. What if someone jumps out from behind that dumpster with a machete? Shotgun? I then do visualization and practice in my head as to what I will do and say. Yes, I have practiced verbally to myself in the patrol car too. 

So I am off to a welfare check of a suicidal 92 year old. I certainly don’t want to tackle an older person even if she is about to dash into oncoming traffic. Or grab her too hard even if it is for her safety …or would it be ? Does she have an organic process taking place? Dementia maybe? Just really sad? I could definitely digress regarding experiences with older community members. 

I find her on a busy part of Downtown Berkeley sitting next to a bank. Definitely not 92. She’s taller and bigger than me. She looks pretty able bodied. She has a purse and other bags around her. She has layers of clothing. She is suicidal. “What if…?!”

I often feel a friction on patrol. It comes on when engaging individuals on calls for service. It is the friction between sensitivity and suspicion, compassion and questioning, “What if” and ….?

I begin to speak with her and she has tears streaming down her cheeks. She is recently homeless. Her family stole her Social Security. She had a dog that she left in St. Louis when she visited over the holidays. She has no reason to live anymore. Some community members are watching our interaction.

The friction starts. What is the truth? Does she have a weapon in her purse? Is this a suicide by cop? My sensitivity and compassion have always been a big part of who I am. They have only deepened over the years in doing this job. But there is that friction again. For as much compassion as I may have, I just can’t make assumptions in this work. 

Some veteran officers will tell you that they can gauge individuals. It comes with experience. Yes, I have those instincts too, but I won’t let my guard down. Never underestimate small children or older people. They can kill you too. The gun will kill you regardless of the hands it may be in. 

I am actively listening and watching her hands. I stand casually with my gun side away. I remember that even if a quarter of what she is sharing is true, she has reasons to cry.