James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital - Tampa, Florida
Teamwork saves Veteran from ‘suicide by cop’
A Veteran is alive today because of teamwork between staff at the New Port Richey Community Based Outpatient Clinic and the Clearwater, Fla., Police Department.
An Veteran with a gun was barricaded inside his Clearwater house Dec. 13 threatening to shoot the police and, “…take some with him.” Police and medical officials called it an attempt at “suicide by police officer.”
All VA staff members are required to complete suicide prevention training annually to know how to react in situations like this.
While the Veteran isn’t a patient of the New Port Richey CBOC, he ended up on the phone with Aaliyah Kew, a scheduler there.
“He sounded agitated, he sounded angry, and as soon as I heard him say that he had a gun, I had one of my coworkers get Jose (Valdes, a VA Police Officer assigned to the clinic),” Kew said. A mental health provider joined the group as Kew tried to keep the Veteran calm and on the phone.
Kew, who had previously worked for the VA Police Service and had mental health training, said that training came back to her when she started talking with the Veteran.
“It just kicks in,” Kew said. “You just keep them on the phone, keep them as calm as you can and do everything you can to keep them engaged until you can get them the help they need. Just keep them engaged.”
Community partnerships and assistance are extremely important in situations such as this, so Kew pulled up the Veteran’s information from the system and Valdes used that to call the Clearwater Police Department to say they had a Veteran threatening himself. She was on the line when police showed up at his home.
“While I was on the phone with him, every time he saw a police officer I would tell him you have to put the gun down,” Kew said. “He’s saying, ‘If I see a cop, if I see a cop, I’m going to go out there and shoot a cop.’”
After 23 minutes, during which time Valdes was on the phone relaying information to the Clearwater Police, the Veteran hung up. During this time frame, Valdes found out from Clearwater Police that the Veteran had stepped outside his home and fired a shot into the ground before going back inside. He called back a few minutes later, this time to the clinic’s front desk, where patients first check in when they arrive at the clinic.
When Valdes was told the Veteran was back on the phone, he asked Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Jeanne Botz to take the call.
“Jose came and got me and I went and sat at the front desk and talked with him,” Botz said. “He was very agitated about the police being there and about not being able to speak with his psychiatric provider. He talked about how he had gone around and shut all the doors and locked all the windows, and all the cops were in the front yard and the back yard and the helicopter was overhead.”
While Botz spoke with the Veteran, Valdes maintained contact with the police officers at the scene. Fellow VA Police Officer Bruce McArthur relayed the information between Botz at the front desk and Valdes in the VA Police office to ensure that other clinic visitors were unaware the intense activities that were unfolding only a few feet from them.
As the conversation progressed, the team thought things had gone terribly wrong.
“At one point in the conversation he said he just killed a cop,” Valdes said. “I asked the Clearwater sergeant I was speaking to if there was a deputy hurt or anybody hurt, and she said no. He’s saying on the phone that he has killed a cop, so that was a relief that nobody got hurt.”
Botz continued her conversation with the distraught Veteran for almost 30 minutes, calling him by his first name to try and make a connection, and emphasizing that she was there for him.
“I told him my main concern was for his safety, and that I didn’t want to see him hurt and I did not want to see any of the officers hurt, so I spent a lot of time saying that,” Botz said. “I told him I’d take care of the problems he’s having right now. He can come see me if he wants, I would make sure that he saw somebody at his own clinic as quickly as possible, but the real priority right now is safety.”
Eventually they were able to convince the Veteran to put his gun down and surrender to the police waiting outside. He was taken into custody under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows police to detain individuals who are a danger to themselves or others for up to 72 hours.
New Port Richey Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Finn had nothing but praise for the team.
“I think that the team of three here accomplished an amazing thing and was able to coordinate with the civilians outside the VA,” Finn said.” “It’s just outstanding, the kind of teamwork that took place. I really feel you guys did an amazing thing.”
For their part, the team said they felt like a lot of the credit goes to the Clearwater Police Department.
“Normally when somebody walks out with a weapon and then fires it, even into the ground, the instinct is to return fire,” Valdes said. “You don’t know if I’m going to shoot into the ground and then lift up the gun and start shooting. It started out that he was going to commit suicide by cop. The Clearwater Police, they take all the credit because they held back and did not return fire. They are the ones who should also be recognized for their work in saving his life.”
“I will be forever grateful, not only for the team that helped here, but that the Clearwater Police were able to restrain themselves because they realized we had a suicidal Veteran on our hands,” Botz said. “They did a really amazing job and I’m really grateful for that.”
If you believe a Veteran in your life may be contemplating suicide, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, send a text message to 838255, or chat online. Qualified and compassionate VA responders are on call 24/7/365 to provide guidance on how to connect Veterans with support and help keep them from harm. #BeThere