What thoughts must have been going through the man's mind as he stood on the wrong side of the safety fence that separates pedestrians from the deadly stream of Highway 99 traffic racing past on the hot asphalt below?

It was 10:40 a.m. Aug. 16 when witnesses alerted police to the man's precarious situation on the White Lane bridge at Highway 99, and for more than four hours, Frank Javier Ruelas, 50, stood barefoot and shirtless on the narrow concrete ledge, more than 20 feet above the surface of the freeway.

Ruelas may have been despondent or desperate or simply out of his mind. But at least he was not alone.

BPD Sgt. Nicole Anderberg and several members of the BPD's Crisis Negotiations Team were there with a purpose: to establish a rapport with Ruelas, to bring him safely off that bridge, and to end the incident with no injuries to first responders, the public or Ruelas himself.

"We do everything we can, we gave him every opportunity to change his mind," Anderberg said last week from the inside of the team's mobile command post, a large RV-like vehicle equipped with phone and TV communications and other equipment.

Despite the fact that Ruelas' actions forced the temporary closure of 99, a major north-south artery in Central California, his peaceful surrender marked the incident a success.

"It's great when we can get someone to come out on their own," Anderberg said. "That's the goal."

The Bakersfield Police Department's nine-member Crisis Negotiations Team — and similar teams across the country — is an outgrowth of changes to the way society views and responds to mental illness, said Emily Lyles, who provides negotiation and de-escalation training to local police officers and sheriff's deputies. Lyles also heads up a Mobile Evaluation Team for Kern County Behavioral Health & Recovery Services, formerly known as Kern County Mental Health.

In years past, many Americans who suffered from mental illness were routinely institutionalized, Lyles said. When that practice ended in the 1980s, the infrastructure wasn't in place to deal with the result.

"Law enforcement ended up becoming the first responder to mental health crises," Lyles said.

They weren't trained to recognize signs of mental illness or deal with behaviors associated with it.

But all that is changing. Every individual who goes through a local law enforcement academy must complete 40 hours of training in this arena.

But officers in BPD's Crisis Negotiations Team are specialists. They receive more and ongoing training, and they are chosen for their innate abilities to make connections with people.

Having a well-developed ability to empathize is almost a job requirement, said Lt. Brent Stratton who with another lieutenant oversees SWAT, the bomb squad and the crisis team.

Stratton recalled an incident involving a man suspected of domestic violence. The man was armed with a gun, there was a pursuit, and the man ended up behind a business on Truxtun extension.

Those dynamic situations can quickly change from someone intending to harm themselves to a possible suicide-by-cop scenario to someone shooting at officers, he said.

"The negotiators responded out there, spoke with him for several hours, and were ultimately able to convince him to drop his gun and be taken into custody peacefully," Stratton said.

"What the Crisis Negotiations Team does is critical," he said.

But there's a downside. Connecting with desperate or suicidal subjects often means exposing one's own vulnerabilities.

"There's emotional fallout," Anderberg said. "There's an opening of the heart to them."

And when an incident doesn't end well, it can stay with officers.

"You ask yourself, 'What could I have done differently?'" she said.

Think cops are emotional islands? Think again.

"We call that vicarious trauma," Lyles said. "As a team, we have ways of coping."

It may be physical exercise. It may be spending time with friends or family. It may require talking it out with other team members.

Everyone on the Crisis Negotiation Team is a regular cop most of the time. Anderberg is a patrol supervisor. There is also one detective, two senior officers and five officers.

They come together when situations warrant it.

And most of the time their efforts go unsung. Strict rules requiring confidentiality in dealing with medical and mental health information means the efforts of the negotiators rarely make the news.

"They're kind of an invisible team," Lyles said. "They show up, do their job and nobody knows." 

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(2) comments

REMUDA

What's missing here? --Comments by the 'victim'(?) on his needs and reactions to the first responder. It's always a problem when a potential suicide plans to involve others (painfully) in his or her demise.

HeresJohnny

duh...And most of the time their efforts go unsung. Strict rules requiring confidentiality in dealing with medical and mental health information means the efforts of the negotiators rarely make the news.

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