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Trained law enforcement personnel persuade person in crisis to safely leave Willmar bridge

Willmar police officers, county sheriff deputies and others were able to safely and positively end an incident with a suicidal individual Friday morning on the First Street South bridge over Highway 71/23 in Willmar. The incident involved closing the highway and overpass and negotiating with the individual. The person eventually stepped away from the bridge edge and was taken to the hospital.

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The Willmar Police Department and Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office respond to a call regarding an individual sitting on the bridge wall Friday morning on the U.S. Highway 71 overpass over state Highway 23 near Menards. Both highways were closed for more than an hour before the issue was resolved. . Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — A mental health crisis Friday morning ended favorably when a suicidal individual stepped away from the edge of the First Street South bridge over Highway 71/23 in Willmar.

The individual was transported to Carris Health — Rice Memorial Hospital for treatment following negotiations with law enforcement.

The incident began around 8 a.m. Friday, when the Willmar Police Department was called to check on the welfare of an individual who was believed to be suicidal. Shortly after, the Kandiyohi County dispatch center handled a call from the individual in question, saying they were suicidal.

Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt, in an interview with the West Central Tribune Friday afternoon, said law enforcement then was trying to pinpoint the person's location.

At approximately 8:40 a.m., the individual was located on the First Street South bridge, over Highways 71/23. The bridge and the highway below were closed for safety. Traffic was heavy at the time, in part due to the Black Friday shopping rush.

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"We had to carve out a pretty wide area," Felt said.

Mental health calls, especially those dealing with suicidal individuals, can be very unpredictable, Felt said. Responding officers have to be concerned about tactical issues — including if the individual has a weapon, and about traffic and overall public safety. At the same time, officers want to treat the person in crisis with respect and caring.

"They are definitely people in need of help. They aren't in charge of themselves," Felt said.

Police officers undergo training in how to respond to mental health crises, with a goal to end the episodes safely for not only the individual, but also for responding officers and the general public.

Friday's incident involved a large response from law enforcement and other agencies. Assisting were the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office, CentraCare Emergency Medical Services, Willmar Fire Department, the Minnesota State Patrol and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The response included officers and a sheriff's deputy trained by the FBI in crisis negotiations. The officers and deputy spoke with the individual for nearly two hours, helping to bring about a positive conclusion.

"They offer some hope, potential solutions" to the individual, Felt said. "What you are trying to do is use your power of persuasion."

Only at a last resort do officers want to use force. That judgment call usually depends on not only public safety, but whether the officers can reach the individual before they decide to do something negative.

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"It is easier to continue negotiating with them than wrestle them to the ground," Felt said.

When it comes to responding to a mental crisis call, only trained officers are used as negotiators, for safety reasons, Felt said.

"We have better control of the situation with our own people," Felt said.

Once the individual is safe with law enforcement, they can be transported to the hospital where medical and mental health professionals can take over, Felt said.

"We want to get them to a place of safety," he said.

Responding to such incidents can be challenging for officers and other emergency responders. After such calls, officers will sometimes gather together to talk about what happened, what went well and what could be done better on future calls.

"The officers decompress for their mental health," Felt said. "A lot of it is talking to our officers. We have resources available."

There are also resources available for the public, including crisis hotlines for those concerned someone might be suicidal or those who are. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 or you can text MN to 741741. Closer to home, Woodland Centers in Willmar has a mental health crisis line at 320-231-9158 or 1-800-432-8781.

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Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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