FARGO — Police here did something they don’t often do when dealing with an armed, suicidal man inside an apartment building on a recent Thursday evening.

After exhausting attempts to communicate with him and consulting with his family, officers decided to leave in order to not escalate the situation.

The next day, Friday, April 19, police were called back to the Cheyenne Estates apartment complex at 1033 43rd ½ St. S., after learning the man had killed himself.

Fargo Police Chief David Todd said his heart goes out to families in these situations. “We do the best we can … to try to help people, not make things worse,” he said.

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With mental health problems at the root of many police calls, departments in the Fargo-Moorhead area have continued to put more officers through Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. In Fargo, more than 65 percent of patrol officers are CIT certified; in West Fargo, the number is 64.5 percent; and in Moorhead, 50 to 60 percent, according to their departments.

The certification includes intensive, week-long training on how to de-escalate situations involving people with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or both.

Some of Fargo’s specially trained officers were on scene that April night.

“We feel that we had the right people out there. It’s just that there isn’t always a good ending to some of these calls — despite our efforts, despite family efforts,” Todd said.

Capt. Deric Swenson, who leads mental health training and response for the Moorhead Police Department, said there’s no simple method to calm a person who is suicidal. “Every situation is so unique,” Swenson said.

'Escalating the situation'

The call answered by Fargo police just after 7 p.m. on April 18 involved a man with a gun who wanted to harm himself. Before officers arrived, property management evacuated the apartment complex.

The situation did not warrant dispatching the Special Weapons and Tactics team, or SWAT, Todd said, because the man was not threatening to hurt others. CIT officers tried to call, text, and talk through a door with the man, with no response, the chief said.

“We kind of got a feeling that because of our presence, because of the media presence, that perhaps we were escalating the situation,” Todd said.

About four hours later, police called off efforts to connect with the man. "At that point, we’d probably be best to back off a little bit," Todd said.

Sometimes, even the police uniform is an obstacle in these cases. “That’s a barrier for us to have open communication,” Swenson said.

In 2018, Fargo police responded to 1,377 calls involving a suicidal person, according to department records. That year, there were 21 completed suicides in the city, according to data from the Cass County Coroner's Office.

Fargo Police Chief David Todd talks about the different ways that officers respond to people threatening suicide, on Wednesday, May 1, at police headquarters downtown. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Fargo Police Chief David Todd talks about the different ways that officers respond to people threatening suicide, on Wednesday, May 1, at police headquarters downtown. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Help goes mobile

Mobile mental health teams on both sides of the Red River often work with local law enforcement in responding to people in crisis.

On the North Dakota side, a team operates through Southeast Human Services, and in Minnesota, teams cover Clay, Otter Tail and Wilkin counties through Lakeland Mental Health.

Alyssa Schultz supervises the Minnesota crisis response staff, based in Moorhead and Fergus Falls, who are available 24/7.

She said the teams have 35 to 60 face-to-face encounters each month. In about half of the cases, they also provide stabilization for two weeks after the initial crisis.

Generally, police officers call the mobile teams when they arrive at a scene, but not in every circumstance. “There is that high safety risk if a gun or knife is involved. In those cases, we likely won’t go,” Schultz said.

The mobile teams and police use the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale to assess a person’s suicide risk level and determine how to respond. People at high risk may be taken to a hospital, while someone at low risk might be encouraged to follow up with their doctor or mental health professional.

Checking in on others

Swenson said if a suicidal person is in imminent danger, it’s best for family or friends to call 911. If the danger is low, local helplines like FirstLink are a good option.

At FirstLink, the volume of suicide-related calls has risen sharply over the last five years. However, that’s mostly due to a big increase in support calls the agency has made, which are included in the total, according to FirstLink Executive Director Cindy Miller.

In 2014, the agency handled 2,057 suicide-related calls. Of those, 851 were follow-up calls, initiated by FirstLink.

In 2018, it handled 10,160 suicide-related calls. Of those, 8,228 were follow-up calls.

Stephanie Schafer, an intensive outpatient program counselor at the Village Family Service Center in Fargo, runs three-hour, daily group discussions for people who need more support than an occasional therapy session.

When she hears of incidents like the one that happened at Cheyenne Estates, she said she thinks about the person involved and the pain they’re in, along with concerned family and friends. She also thinks about law enforcement officers whose job it is to respond.

“They see a lot of trauma,” she said.

If everyone could be more vigilant and check in more frequently with people who are struggling, Schafer said, it could make a big difference.

“Hopefully that keeps us from having situations like that one, a bit more,” she said.

Suicide warning signs

  • talking about wanting to die, feeling trapped or hopeless
  • changes in school or work performance
  • increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • extreme mood swings, withdrawing or feeling isolated

Source: FirstLink

What to do

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, answered locally by FirstLink, at 1-800-273-8255.

Or text your ZIP code to 898-211 to get help.