On Feb. 10, a 63-year-old man from Long Beach drove his SUV to the edge of a steep cliff in Palos Verdes Estates. He wasn’t there to enjoy the view; he was there to kill himself.
When the police arrived on the scene, they realized the man was delusional. He’d been drinking, on drugs, and was paranoid.
“The man was agitated and highly suspicious,” Police Chief Mark Velez said. “He believed law enforcement in Long Beach and San Diego wanted him for a crime he didn’t commit. But he was wrong, he wasn’t wanted by those agencies.”
“The only thing on him was an easily handled warrant, but he wouldn’t believe us. I told him, ‘Hey, I’m the chief. I’ll bring those officers (LBPD and SDPD) down so you can talk to them. I’ll get you something to eat and drink in a calm environment.’”
According to Velez, the man lurched the car forward yelling, “I’m gonna kill myself. I’m not lying. I’m almost on empty, and when I’m on empty, if those officers aren’t here, I’m gonna drive off and kill myself.”
“I didn’t think we could rush the guy, and he was looking around way too much for us to get a chain on his car,” the chief said. “I didn’t think that aggressive police tactics would work.”
Instead, Velez went back to gain the man’s trust.
“When I walked toward the car, I felt that this man was vulnerable, scared, and didn’t know what to do,” Velez continued. “I thought if I made myself vulnerable, he’d see that I’m a cop, and I’m taking a chance too.”
Earlier in his career, Velez was called to a scene after a 14-year-old boy jumped off the cliff because his 13-year-old girlfriend dumped him. The chief said he never forgot that senseless death.
He couldn’t do anything for the boy, but he had a chance to save this man. It was risky though, because the chief would be in the open with no cover, and the man might have a gun.
“When I went between the police car and his car,” Velez said. “I felt pretty naked. If the man shoots I don’t have a gun out. I wasn’t in control. All my attention was on him — watching what he’s paying attention to — listening to him so I can answer back.
“I lost all focus about everything around me. It became very quiet. I didn’t hear the helicopter. I didn’t notice that three cops had their guns drawn and were ready in case something happened. I didn’t see any of the crowd gathering. I didn’t see an officer pull his car up behind the SUV when it started to get dark. My focus was on the man, just on him.
“I said to myself ‘oh man this is bad tunnel vision,’ but I knew that the officers on the scene noticed, so I had extra eyes and ears. I’ve never had tunnel vision that bad. The guy knew I was vulnerable. I had to pay attention. I didn’t want him to drive off.”
About eight feet from the car, Velez told the man, “I’m a cop, but I’m human and I care about you. I want you to come in. You’ll be treated with dignity and respect. We’ll get you help.”
The chief said he knew he’d made a connection when he saw the man’s expression change. He approached the vehicle and said, “Okay we’re going to take care of this.”
“The man stepped out of his car sobbing,” Velez said, taking a deep breath. “I reiterated that everything I’d told him was true. I wasn’t just saying stuff. I think he was relieved that he didn’t have to drive off the cliff. I was relieved, too.”
The fire department checked the subject and he was transported to the hospital for treatment.
“I know what it feels like to see someone who has killed himself, because you think, oh man if you gave it another day,” Velez reflected. “If you’d talked to somebody, but this is a whole other emotion because I actually got this guy to treatment.”
And two days later, the man contacted the chief and thanked him.
”This guy had a history of addiction, but he’s starting over,” Velez said, smiling. “He’s in long term rehab making an effort to change. He’s in touch with his family who he hasn’t seen in 20 years. He has a chance to better his life.”
The man isn’t the only one making changes.
Chief Velez is going to get more involved with suicide prevention, especially in the high schools.
The chief flashed back to the young boy who killed himself over a break up.
“That kid had his whole life ahead of him,” he said. “I want to help kids like him.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).