As a former police dispatcher, I talked to lots of people. And after only a year working at a busy agency, I had heard it all: shootings, stabbings, rapes, robberies, assaults, domestic violence, and very interesting combinations of all of the above became routine in a single shift. However, nothing really prepares you for the person who calls and says, “I want to kill myself”.
Strangely enough in my experience, there are two very different types of people who call 9-1-1 threatening to commit suicide. The first type of person is calling as a public cry for attention with no real intention of actually hurting himself. This person has no plan on how to do it or even the means to carry it out. He wants someone to talk to, someone to come get him and take him away, and he thinks that will make all the bad stressors in his life magically disappear. On the other hand, the second type of person is quite serious. The tone in Bob’s voice told me he was very serious when I answered his 9-1-1 call on a Saturday afternoon in the early spring of 2013:
“I need the Anaheim Police Department”, he said.
“This is the Anaheim Police Department. Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m at a business at 1234 N. Kraemer Pl. in Anaheim.”
“What is your emergency?”
“I am really sorry I had to call you and involve you in this. I have a handgun and I am going to shoot myself. I will be dead by the time police get here. You will find me outside in the rear parking lot. My full name is Bob (insert here) and my date of birth is (insert here). My home address is (insert here) in Anaheim. There is a note I have written in my back pocket. The note has contact information for my family. I am so sorry. Goodbye.”
Those were the last words that Bob spoke while he was alive. He hung up and immediate callbacks to his cell phone went straight to voice mail, which told me he most likely turned his phone off. I had the information entered in the computer and I stood up and shouted to my partner working the radio to send officers right away because Bob was serious. As my partner dispatched officers, I was on the phone with Bob’s cell phone service provider tracing his call to confirm the information he provided me. Our department’s helicopter was flying overhead within two minutes and the pilots broadcast over the radio that there was a male lying down in the parking lot with a handgun next to him. I knew Bob was dead at that moment. Officers arrived on the ground shortly thereafter and found Bob’s body with a gunshot wound to his head. The note was in his back pocket. Bob had shot himself in the head right after he hung up with me.
After Bob’s call, there was tightness in my chest and my throat felt like it was closing. I was having difficulty breathing and my heart was racing, but I made it through the last hour of my shift. I knew this call was bothering me and I found that strange. Since the death of Officer Kathy Johnson in 2006 (My Story of Survival [Part 1]: Police Suicide Survivors), I had handled plenty of suicidal calls over the years prior to Bob: hangings, overdoses, jumpers, and cutters. I had developed a strong detachment from work over the years desensitizing me from a majority of the stuff I was exposed to while handling calls. Bob’s call was different though and I later realized why. Bob was my first gunshot victim.
Bob called late on a Saturday afternoon. The business he was at was actually a vacant warehouse, located in an industrial area of the city. No one was around to hear the gunshot; he called 9-1-1 so police could find his body; he wrote a note with instructions to notify his family. Bob had developed a detailed plan before meeting his demise. He did not wake up that morning and roll out of bed spontaneously thinking he would kill himself because life was so bad. This was obviously something he had thought about and planned out accordingly. It was eerily premeditated, just like Johnson’s death. She was home alone when she shot herself, so no one heard. She also called the police to advise them and she wrote a note with instructions to notify her family and our department. Sadly, it was also something Johnson had thought and planned out. The similarities were sickening to me.
I called out sick the following day, and then I had a few days off before I was scheduled to report back to work. I did not tell anyone I was disturbed by handling Bob’s call. In all my years at the department, I had never seen another dispatcher come forward and say she was bothered by a call she handled. Dispatchers just do not do that. We are tough. We have thick, calloused skin that becomes our armor protecting us from the terrible things we hear. We punch our timecards and hit that “Answer” button when the phone lines ring. And there was seldom a time of day when lines were not ringing in a dynamic city like Anaheim. I went back to occupational therapy, submerging myself in busy projects to distract my mind from processing how Bob reminded me of my dear friend Johnson.
Days turned into months, and months went by, until the early evening of Halloween 2013 when another voice would spark a wildfire of emotions in my heart and forever change me:
“My daughter just shot herself”, an elderly male said.
“Ok”. I had to briefly pause for a second because I felt the mental and emotional barriers I had worked so hard to erect the last few months since Bob’s death instantly crumble. “Where is your daughter?” I asked, as I tried to regain my composure.
“She’s on the bed in the bedroom.”
“Where is the gun?”
“It’s on the bed next to her.”
“Ok, pick the gun up for me and move it away from her and put it somewhere safe”, I instructed. “Is it just you and your daughter inside your home now?” I asked.
“Yes. I left the house about ten minutes ago because she asked me to pick up a couple of items from the liquor store just down the block. When I came back home, I set the items on the kitchen counter and saw a handwritten letter that was not there when I left. I started reading it and it was from my daughter, and I… I… I went into the bedroom and found her”, he said.
“How old is your daughter?”
“She’s 51. She’s been struggling with severe depression for a long time.”
“Is your daughter conscious now? Is she awake?” I asked.
“Is she breathing?”
“She’s trying to.”
“I’m sorry, she’s trying to?” I tried to clarify.
“Yeah, but it’s like she’s got some fluid in her throat or something, like gurgling.” Just as I got a fire dispatcher on the phone to talk the male through medical pre-arrival instructions to help his daughter before police and paramedics got to the house, officers arrived outside.
“Fire this is the PD. I need to take the call back over because I have officers out front now”, I interrupted the fire dispatcher. “Sir, I want you to put the phone down without hanging up and walk out the front door of your house with nothing in your hands. I have police officers outside waiting for you. Do you understand?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m setting the phone down now and walking out.”
The caller did as I instructed and set the phone down without hanging up, but he set it on the bed right next to his daughter. She may have shot herself in the head, but she was by no means dead yet. As the caller previously described, I could hear his daughter gurgling fluid as she struggled to breathe in the background. I listened to this on an open phone line for about a minute while police officers cleared the interior of the house to make sure it was safe. When officers came into the bedroom, I disconnected. She was still alive and transported to a local hospital, but it was not looking good for her. I assume she ultimately succumbed to her injury, but as of today I do not know the outcome for certain.
I answered this call at 5:50pm. It was Halloween and the graveyard shift coming on was actually relieving my dayshift team a few minutes early to be courteous. It was busy and lines were ringing during the shift rotation, so I answered this last call. It would end up being the last 9-1-1 call I ever answered and my last day working as a dispatcher.
Stay tuned for My Story of Survival (Part 3): The Journey to Healing.