National News

At George Washington Bridge, a Fence Rises to Deter Suicides

Posted December 29, 2017 4:53 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Capt. Emilio Gonzalez read, aloud, some statistics for 2017. He repeated one: “Sixty-eight saves.”

In the hierarchy of the Port Authority Police Department, Gonzalez is the commanding officer responsible for the George Washington Bridge, whose ceaseless parade of cars and trucks make it one of the world’s busiest. The figure he repeated was for suicide attempts that were blocked by his officers, for the George Washington Bridge, more than most bridges in the New York area, draws people who have decided death is the only option.

A suicide attempt is thwarted at the bridge once nearly every five days.

Fifteen people have jumped to their deaths there in 2017.

Now Gonzalez has a new tool intended to prevent suicides from the bridge, an 11-foot-high fence connected to netting that forms a canopy over the pathway beyond the traffic lanes. Until now, the only barrier along the pathway was a barricade-high railing.

The Port Authority has officers who monitor cameras trained on the pathway and who can dispatch other officers, even a fully equipped emergency unit, if they see someone among the runners and bicyclists who arouses their suspicions. Until now, that meant someone who lingered too close to the railing for too long.

The chain-link fence is too tall to scale quickly, and getting around the canopy would require unusual strength and agility. The Port Authority installed the fence and the netting beginning in September on the pathway along the south side of the bridge, but they are only temporary.

A permanent fence will be installed later, after the completion of a permanent fence on the north side as part of the agency’s “Restoring the George” rehabilitation program for the 86-year-old bridge.

“I don’t think that’s something anyone thinks about when they design a bridge,” Gonzalez said. “What was there was what was designed when the bridge was built, the height on most bridges. Nothing unusual.”

The work on the north side began when the temporary fence on the south side was completed this month, eight months after work began on a “suicide deterrent net” under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, another long bridge that attracts people contemplating killing themselves. The net, made of stainless steel, will reach out 20 feet from the bridge.

At the George Washington Bridge, 2017’s tally of 15 suicides so far is three more than in 2016 and three fewer than in 2015.

The last suicide was on Nov. 8, when a 38-year-old man from Queens stopped his car on the lower level of the bridge. There is no pedestrian walkway on the lower level, only a maintenance catwalk and a barricade-height railing, which the man quickly climbed over.

The temporary fence, on the upper level, is anchored to the bridge. “It’s a very good feat of engineering because you have a person who’s hellbent on jumping, it’s going to be very difficult to climb the device and get over,” Gonzalez said, “and by the time that happens, we’ll pick up on the CCTV cameras. We’ll intervene and more than likely save the person.”

Suicidologists say that barriers on bridges are effective tools for preventing suicides. A 2015 analysis published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry averaged 18 suicide studies and concluded that placing safety nets under known “hot spots” for suicide reduced death rates. The study found that the death rate from suicide was an average of 5.8 a year before such nets were installed to an average of 2.4 deaths a year after, a decline of 58 percent.

Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president for research of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said in an interview that putting a barrier on one bridge did not normally lead to higher suicide rates on nearby bridges.

On the George Washington Bridge, signs on the pathway urge people considering suicide to seek help, and there are call boxes that dial a suicide hotline. But Dr. Richard T. McKeon, head of the suicide prevention branch of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said that such phones “should be considered a complement to, not a substitute for, a barrier.”

“There are people who are just not going to use the phone if it’s there,” he said. “Some might, but many won’t.” Besides the 68 “saves” on the George Washington Bridge, another 37 suicide attempts that were thwarted were counted as “investigations,” meaning that Port Authority police received word that someone who was suicidal was going to the bridge. Gonzalez said police tracked them down, usually before they were anywhere near the bridge, using technology that picks up signals from cellphones.

“People leave a note” that someone sees, he said, “or they tell a relative or just mention in passing that they want to come to the George Washington Bridge to do it.”

Officers assigned to patrol the bridge each day have been trained in crisis intervention. “They’re trained to notice people and question people who appear to be somewhat depressed,” he said. “That has resulted in identifying people who are exhibiting signs of suicides.”

The fence “buys us time,” Gonzalez said. “We have more time to get to them and save them.”