Ex-Cop Named 'Guardian Of The Golden Gate Bridge' After Stopping 200+ Suicides

Whenever we're moving into a new place or starting a new job, it's unlikely that we'll be briefed on everything we might wish to know about it before we begin.

Although we may get a general rundown of the place and may have some of our more pointed questions answered, there will be some aspect of our new experience that won't become clear until we're already in the trenches. And as we'll soon see, that turned out to be the case for one former officer in the California Highway Patrol.

But while his job involved significantly less enforcement of traffic laws than he expected, it also provided him with enough of an opportunity to develop expertise in handling one of the nation's leading dangers to change the world.

If Retired Sergeant Kevin Briggs thought he was mostly going to deal with traffic incidents when he joined the force in 1994, he had every reason to make that assumption.

As he told the CBC, this was because that was largely what his training prepared him for. Notably, it didn't address how to respond in cases where people were contemplating suicide.

But since most of his time was spent in the area around San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, the unfortunate truth was that these situations were a regular part of his job.

As he said, "There were four to six cases of suicidal folks on the bridge each and every month. And I had no idea about this, and I grew up in Marin County, which connects to San Francisco via that Golden Gate Bridge...I had no training to handle these types of situations."

So when he dealt with his first such case, he said he "did about everything wrong that you could."

As he further explained to the CBC, "I think my approach right from the start was wrong. Just to walk up right to those folks and start talking with them. Now what I do is I stand back and I'll just introduce myself. I'll say 'Hi I'm Kevin' or 'I'm Kevin with the Highway Patrol, is it okay, is it alright if I come up and speak with you for a bit?' I want to get their permission and empower them."

Fortunately, he had fine-tuned his approach a great deal in the over 23 years that he was on the force because his skills were sorely need on March 11, 2005.

As NPR reported, that day found Bay Area resident Kevin Bethia seeking directions to the bridge for the first time in his life.

Unfortunately, this was influenced by the fact that his daughter had recently experienced a premature birth and the medical costs of her care fast approached $250,000.

Feeling overwhelmed and depressed, Bethia contemplated jumping from the bridge.

As he said, "And I just felt like a failure. All I gotta do is lean back and everything is done. I'm free of all this pain."

When Briggs first approached Bethia, he recalled that he seemed very angry and didn't seem to want to talk to him.

As Briggs told the CBC, "He kept yelling at me 'Stay back! Stay back, if you come one step further I'm jumping!' And he was very serious about this. In my mind, if I took one step further then he was gone."

As Bethia later told NPR, this initial reaction was attributable to his embarrassment and anger at himself at the time, but he said the compassion in Briggs' voice helped him let his guard down.

This led to a 92-minute conversation that eventually convinced Bethia that if nothing else, he needed to live for his daughters' sake and saw him agree to come back over the ledge.

Although Briggs doesn't often meet with people he talks down from ledges after the fact, a note from Bethia's mother convinced him to meet up with him a decade later.

As NPR reported, Bethia didn't want to talk about the incident on the bridge for about eight years but Briggs' own experiences with depression taught him that it doesn't help to keep our more concerning thoughts and episodes bottled up.

As Bethia said to Briggs when they reunited, "You know, we've been through similar things in our lives and I've never been around anybody that's seen me at a more vulnerable state. The greater picture is that I need to be here for my daughter. You know, she's 10 now and, had you not been there, I wouldn't get to see her grow up."

After retiring from the California Highway Patrol in 2013, Briggs now provides training and education in suicide intervention and crisis management through an organization called Pivotal Points.

But as the CBC reported, Briggs' decades with the Highway Patrol saw him talk over 200 people down from the Golden Gate bridge under similar circumstances as Bethia.

This has earned him the nickname, "Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge."

And in his experience, when people express suicidal thoughts, they're not looking to hear, "You'll get over it," or "It's going to get better."

As he told, the CBC, "What I believe, personally, they want to hear is, 'Yeah, it is tough.'

"I try to explain to them, wow that sounds really tough. And normalize their situation. That's a real big one, is to try to normalize their situation. You know, 'Wow, what you're going through is a whole lot of stuff and that'd be tough on anybody. I think anyone going through all that might be thinking about suicide'."

When Briggs asked Bethia what led him to come back over the ledge, he replied, "You listened. You let me speak and you listened."

And while he told the CBC that he doesn't have the solution for the issues the people he talks to are dealing with, it's easy to underestimate how powerful the act of listening and making a serious effort to understand their situation can be.

As he said, "It takes a lot of courage to be over that rail. It takes a lot of courage. But it also takes a lot of courage to come back and face the reality that is with them right now. But there is a brighter side to this, and it can happen, and it might take a long time and a lot of work. But life is beautiful and, you know, it is worth living."

h/t: CBC, NPR

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