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'A mental health crisis at 250 feet in the air' - Culpeper PD helps rescue suicidal man from atop cell tower

'A mental health crisis at 250 feet in the air' - Culpeper PD helps rescue suicidal man from atop cell tower

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In a high-stress matter of life and death, various local professionals came together Sunday afternoon in downtown Culpeper to save a suicidal, 50-year-old man who climbed to the top of a 250-feet-tall cell tower to end his life by jumping.

Multiple calls came into Culpeper County E911 starting around 12:18 p.m. on Sunday about a male subject climbing a cellphone tower at the Verizon building in the 600 block of Old Brandy Road at East Piedmont Street.

The man was yelling suicidal statements as he climbed the tower, according to a news release Monday morning from Culpeper Police Department spokeswoman Officer Julia Cole.

Officers quickly responded to the area and set up a safety perimeter. Shortly after their arrival, the male subject reached the top platform of the tower with upper platforms only accessible by ladder.

A Joint Command Center was quickly formed consisting of Culpeper Police Capt. Tim Chilton, the Culpeper County Volunteer Fire Department, and the county's Department of Emergency Services.

Once the perimeter was secured, Culpeper Police Lt. Brittany Jenkins and officer Al Cooper, certified members of the agency’s Crisis Intervention Team and Peer Support Team, climbed the tower to the second-highest platform, Cole said, in an attempt to save the man.

“It is a major incident,” Chilton said Sunday from the scene. He noted Monday morning there were several times he thought the man, unsteady on his feet, was going to jump or fall when he got very close to the edge of the tall structure, where there was no safety fence to prevent it.

“This is going to be bad,” Chilton said of a potential fatal outcome that was avoided.

As Jenkins climbed up the tower, all she could think of was putting one hand in front of the other to keep moving up the ladder with Cooper, she said in an email Monday afternoon.

Jenkins said she just wanted to get to the man quickly to re-establish communication so that he wasn’t up there alone.

“I’m not ashamed to say that I was scared for many reasons,” she said. “I was scared that I would witness this man’s final moments.”

She and Cooper, in addition, were not connected to anything on the structure to keep them from falling and there was steady wind with strong gusts.

“This was a very unpredictable and unsafe situation. But throughout the incident I think adrenaline and our desire to get him help allowed us to push through any fears we had. I relied heavily on my mental health training and experience,” Jenkins said. “Luckily everything worked out.”

Drones were deployed for surveillance as Jenkins and Cooper began the rescue attempt, which was filmed from start to finish, Chilton said. All along, the male subject continued to exhibit self-harming behaviors and armed himself with a pair of improvised weapons, Cole said.

From the second platform, Jenkins and Cooper successfully de-escalated the situation by talking to the male subject until they could safely join him on the top platform of the tower.

After further negotiation, he agreed to climb down to the second platform, with higher railings, making it the safest staging point for all involved. At that location, the male was detained for his safety.

Responding to assist with this operation on a Sunday afternoon were members of Division 2 Heavy Technical Rescue team comprised of firefighters from Augusta County, Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Staunton and Waynesboro. With their assistance and equipment, the man and both officers safely descended the tower.

Once on the ground, the man was taken into detained by police under an emergency custody order and transported to Novant Health UVA Culpeper Medical Center for a mental health evaluation and treatment of self-inflicted injuries.

“This was the best possible resolution,” said Culpeper Police Chief Chris Jenkins, “and an excellent example of officer bravery during a high-risk situation. Even though Lt. Jenkins and officer Cooper were wearing safety harnesses, there was nothing for them to hook on to.

“They walked into a mental health crisis at 250 feet in the air with no safety net and no backup on the platforms. No one is calm during the early stages of a crisis. It was only due to the officers’ training, experience, and empathy that they were able to de-escalate him and get the man to safety.”

Mutual aid agencies that responded allowed the incident to be quickly and safely resolved, the chief said.

“I am grateful that this man is still alive, and we hope he receives all of the support and services needed to make a full recovery,” Jenkins said.

The Star-Exponent asked Jim LaGraffe, director of the region’s mental health-focused Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services, if the agency provided any mental health professionals at the scene of Sunday’s tower incident. He said on Monday that RRCS crisis services were contacted about the event and were in communication with the police department.

“However, strategies for our clinicians to communicate directly with the person in crisis were not an option due to the unique nature of the event,” LaGraffe said.

RRCS is still in the early stages of creating a co-responder program for the area and is an early implementer of the statewide Marcus Alert System mental health readiness program, he said would bring needed resources to the area to deal with crisis situations as played out Sunday.

“At this time, we do not have mobile crisis supports in our area,” LaGraffe said. “With the latest legislative session there were monies allocated to begin bringing the services to our area with the new fiscal year.”

Marcus Alert protocols, and associated funding to develop mobile unit crisis teams to co-respond with police to mental health emergencies, are slated to roll out in the Culpeper area in December, according to the RRCS director.

“We have a very active and engaged volunteer community planning team working on this,” LaGraffe said.

He noted RRCS has coordinated and continues to offer crisis intervention training for Culpeper police and many other agencies in the five counties. LaGraffe commended the local police force for its commitment to intervention training.

“These trainings give officers tools to successfully respond in situations like these,” he said. “The leadership Chief Jenkins has established in ensuring his officers have and use this training is outstanding.”

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