FORSYTH COUNTY -- The call came into the 911 center at 9:52 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16.
It was in reference a domestic disturbance on Wooten Road in Roswell, though the two responding officers had little other information.
As the officers rushed to the scene, more information came through from dispatch: they were responding to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The victim: 15-year-old Samuel Barrow Jr.
At the home, the responding officers followed procedure, clearing the scene to make sure the area was safe and attempting to resuscitate the boy.
But even with EMS taking over lifesaving efforts, the teen had already died – just three weeks before his 16th birthday.
“Our lives will never be the same,” said Barrow Jr.’s grandmother, Christy Vaughan. “Death by suicide is such a horrible end to so many beautiful lives. It changes not only the suicide victim, but everyone else.”
“Get deputies out to the scene”
Though the Roswell Police Department is in Fulton County, most law enforcement agencies have similar protocol when responding to suicide or other incident calls, said Cpl. Pete Sabella, a spokesman for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
As public servants, their role is an intervening one: they respond mid-crisis or shortly thereafter with a short-term goal in mind: saving lives.
“Our primary goal is to help the person get the help that they need,” Sabella said. “When we respond to the scene, the first thing we want to do is make sure the person is safe and the scene is safe for everybody involved. Once we get on scene and we can make sure it’s safe, then we have EMS respond in with us.
“Typically what happens is we’re dispatched together, but we do what’s called staging the area – [EMS] will get close but won’t actually go into the scene until we make it safe.”
Deputies are almost always the first responders to suicide or attempts, and unlike other public institutions, their focus is less on prevention or postvention, but on intervention.
That’s just the nature of the job, Sabella said; while 911 centers do get calls from people who say they just need someone to talk to, the overwhelming majority of calls are for an act or threat.
“On the way to the scene, dispatch is helping us get information from whoever the caller is,” Sabella said. “The things we’re looking for are, is it a threat or was there a committed act? If it was an act or is in progress, what we want to know is, was it by way of a weapon, is it pills or is it some sort of toxic fluid?
“Our ultimate goal is to point [the victim] in the right direction – we want to make sure they get the help that they need. Typically, that help is them going to the hospital and getting them evaluated there, and that’s usually where our involvement ends.”
In part, it is difficult for the sheriff’s office to play any other role when it comes to suicide.
While deputies do try to make relationships with county citizens, their job is different than that of teachers, religious leaders or other professionals who may interact daily with the same person and notice suicide warning signs.
“The way we typically get notified is a 911 call,” Sabella said. “Either the person themselves will call or it’s a family member and our immediate response is to get out and get deputies out to the location of the incident, make the environment safe, figure out what’s taken place and then get them the help – medical and psychological.”
But the help deputies give is often short-term and ends at the hospital, and it can be too time-consuming to follow up with a family or an attempter.
National data from the American Association of Suicidology shows an average of one person dies by suicide every 12.3 minutes and attempts are estimated at one every 29 seconds.
The frequency of suicide and 911 calls adds pressure to law enforcement officers, and aside from responding to those calls, deputies also answer a myriad of other requests and alerts daily.
FCSO Deputy Chief Grady Sanford said deputies are not healthcare providers and not trained the way those professionals are.
However, given a law enforcement officer’s role is to serve the people, Sanford said, officers can be trained to help in preventative ways.
“An obligation to look after each other”
Though fewer suicide prevention programs stem from law enforcement agencies than other institutions, Sanford said state agencies offer programs that teach deputies how to play a role before a suicide or attempt occurs.
“As a community, we have an obligation to look after each other,” he said. “If you see someone having trouble or problems like this, you try to help them as much as you can. On state patrol, we [teach] officers how to deal with mental health issues in people. In other words, you’ve got to recognize when someone’s having an issue and got to talk to them.
“[Officers] have to recognize it and get [a person] help if they need help. And it’s not necessarily about locking them up or making an arrest on somebody who’s hurting. Maybe you need to talk to them and get them to calm down and have a conversation with them – it could be something we could help them with right then or get them help if they need it.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, teaches law enforcement agents how to do just that.
In partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI,) the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Georgia Sheriff's Association, Inc. and other agencies, CIT teaches officers to “effectively assist individuals with mental illness and other brain disorders who are in crisis, therefore advancing public safety and reducing the stigma commonly associated with mental illness.”
Sheri McGuinness, president and CEO of Suicide Prevention Action Network, Georgia, or SPAN-GA, said her organization, too, works to create these kinds of programs.
“We work with NAMI-GA on CIT training to train law enforcement to deal with a suicidal crisis and [have] created many strategies to permeate the state with action around suicide prevention, intervention and aftercare,” she said. “We need them to organize suicide prevention coalitions that would be able to bring prevention, intervention and aftercare strategies to their own community.”
But she said the establishment of coalitions and help groups needs to come from all areas of the community.
“It does take a village”
“We’ve had troopers who have [stopped] people who are suicidal,” Sanford said. “They stop them [on the road], but you look beyond the stop. You talk to the person and see what’s going on with them and if they have an issue, you give help – even if you’ve stopped them for speeding. You get them help.”
McGuinness said all community institutions need to have this kind of response.
“We need gatekeeper training throughout our communities so that everyone can identify and get those in need to help,” she said. “It does take a village. Sadly, people don’t jump onboard until there have been a noticeable number of losses in their community. But, when there is, we take action and support their needs.”
“We serve the citizens of Forsyth County,” Sanford said. “They elected Freeman to be their sheriff and we’re public servants – that’s what we’re there for. I know in my 33 years of law enforcement, I did this to help people and to make a difference.
“We have to do our jobs and be compassionate to the community and let them know if something happens out there, we’re there to help them and offer programs to help prevent suicide.”