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October 7, 2012

In This Job, Officers Seek Openings to Help Despondent

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NEW YORK — On a concrete ledge off the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge, more than 200 feet above the swift and leaden Hudson River that November night, the two detectives gingerly approached the despondent man as he contemplated jumping.

The plunge, at a speed of more than 60 miles per hour, would surely kill him.

Detectives Marc Nell and Everald Taylor, tethered to the bridge and to their rescue truck with nylon harnesses and heavy rope, knew to resist the urge to pull the man to safety. It was not time yet.

‘‘Tell me your name,’’ Nell said, tapping into the emotional and psychological arsenal that he had acquired in training. ‘‘Talk to me.’’ “Think of your family.’’

Sometimes the detectives do most or all of the talking. It does not always matter. What the detectives are probing for is not necessarily conveyed in words. They are looking for an opening. A moment of doubt.

‘‘Once you see that light, you see their facial expression change, their body posture change, and you think: ‘Oh, I got them. OK, they are not going anywhere,’ ’’ Nell said. ‘‘It’s like when a boxer gets that shot and he knows that the opponent is wobbly and he just keeps going at that same spot.’’

In this case, Nell and Detective Eddie Torres, a third officer who had joined the rescue, did what they refer to as the Grab. They seized the man, pulling him off the ledge and over a guardrail.

Each year, the Police Department receives hundreds of 911 calls for so-called jumper jobs, or reports of people on bridges and rooftops threatening to jump. So far this year, that number is on track to surpass last year’s total, 519.

The department’s Emergency Service Unit responds to those calls. The roughly 300 officers in the unit are trained in suicide rescue.

‘‘You wouldn’t want to say, ‘Yeah, things are bad and who knows if they can even get better,’ ’’ said Inspector Robert Lukach, the unit’s executive. ‘‘You always have to be positive. I like to tell my guys: Bring yourself into it. If he says, ‘Oh, I’m having problems with my wife,’ say: ‘Yeah, I have problems with my wife, too. My wife just yelled at me yesterday for not doing the dishes.’ ’’

The officer’s goal is to form a rapport with the person and seize upon the one emotional chord that will get him or her to climb down from the edge.

“You have to understand and extend yourself because your obvious goal is to save someone’s life,’’ Lukach said. ‘‘So if you have to give a little, you give a little. That’s the sacrifice you make.’’ The mental gymnastics can go on for hours, and do not always pay off.

On a cold day this past winter, Taylor was talking to a psychiatric patient who had squeezed through a sixth-floor bathroom window at Bellevue Hospital Center. The man’s toes barely fit on a building lip below, so he mostly clung to the window ledge by his fingers. He told the detective that he had killed somebody a few years back and could no longer live with the guilt.

‘‘OK, we all make mistakes,’’ Taylor said he told him. ‘‘That doesn’t mean you should take your life. We’re all human beings. None of us are perfect.’’

“Why don’t you just push me? Why don’t you just end it for me?’’ the man goaded the detective, who recounted his words.

“That’s not my purpose for being here,’’ Taylor gently told him.

For nearly three hours, Taylor leaned out a seventh-floor window, talking, buying time, as other officers cut away window glass to create an opening large enough to make a grab. Taylor sensed the man was ready to come in. He was shirtless and cold. He asked for a blanket, the detective recalled.

‘‘Fatigue set in,’’ he said. ‘‘He was extending his arms to me, but I couldn’t reach him. At that point, he panicked a little bit, and that’s when he kind of groaned and said, ‘OK,’ and he left — fell.’’

‘‘That was my first failure,’’ Taylor said. ‘‘That was the one and only time that I lost someone I was talking to.’’

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