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Police officer talks Richmond woman out of taking her own life

Posted at 5:01 PM, Nov 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-10 18:28:52-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Richmond Police officer awarded for saving a man’s life in 2019 was credited this month for preventing another potential suicide in the city, according to a Richmond Police spokesperson.

Officer Jason Jones responded to the 1400 block of East Broad Street for a woman threatening to set herself on fire just after 11:50 p.m. on November 3.

The woman, who was experiencing a mental health crisis, had doused herself in gasoline, police said.

“I could smell the presence of gasoline on her and gasoline spilled on the sidewalk,” Jones recounted. “You could see her phone in one hand and she was holding a lighter in her other hand.”

Jones, a five-year veteran of the police force, said the irate woman was threatening to take her life.

“She felt like her life wasn’t worth it and kept saying that over and over again,” he recalled. “I just had to keep reiterating, ‘Yes, it is worth it.”

The Henrico native Tucker High graduate spoke with the woman for nearly a half-hour.

“I just asked her, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve helped you. I’ve listened to you. I understand what you’re going through. Do you mind helping me and just dropping the lighter?’ And, immediately she threw the lighter on the ground,” Jones explained.

Three years ago, Jones went through Crisis Intervention Team training in order to respond to a situation just like this. Approximately 80% of Richmond Police officers have undergone CIT training with an eventual 100% goal.

The program consists of 40 hours of classroom instruction and practical exercises that teach officers how to better deal with people in the throes of a mental health crisis.

Jones has used his CIT training before and was recognized for his heroism.

In 2019, he and Officer Brooke Spence both received a bronze Valor award for saving a man attempting to jump off the Manchester bridge.

The Annual Valor Awards is dedicated to honoring those who have put their lives at risk in order to preserve the safety of our community.

Jones said the key to calming a person experiencing a mental health crisis is to treat them like a person.

“Outside of this uniform I’m a person just like you,” he stated.

Richmond Police said the woman was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Soon, officers will have additional resources to respond to mental health crises.

By December 1, 2021, localities must implement the Marcus Alert bill recently signed into law.

The legislation will create five teams of mental health specialists across the Commonwealth to accompany police officers responding to crises.

The law is named for Marcus-Davis Peters, a teacher who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer on Interstate 95 while experiencing a mental health crisis in 2018. The fatal shooting was initially ruled justified by the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office. That ruling was reaffirmed earlier this month with a different Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney reviewed the case.

Dr. William Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice and policing at VCU’s Wilder School, said one of the most frequent obligations of an officer is dealing with distraught individuals.

Ideally, a counselor and officer would work in tandem and find a balance. But, Pelfrey said it may be a challenge for certain teams spread across Virginia to arrive in time to help someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

In certain cases, seconds and minutes can impact a positive outcome.

It’s unclear whether the counselor-officer partnership will be effective, Pelfrey said.

“It’s hard to say whether adding a counselor to accompany a police officer will be beneficial. There hasn’t been enough research done on that exact topic to know whether it’s going to work,” he explained. “It’ll be months maybe even a year or two before we have enough data before we determine if it’s an effective practice.”