Saving Life on Brink

By Sara Faruqi, Toronto Police Service Published: 1 p.m. December 14, 2014

Emergency Task Force (ETF) officers helped save a life on Sunday, in a situation that could have quickly escalated into a dangerous one.

A group of officers in TPS tactical gear in front of a large tactical truck
Sgt. Mark Armstrong, centre, with members of his Tactical Team 4, of the Emergency Task Force

Around 8 a.m., on Sunday Dec. 7, 12 Division received a call from a man who said he was going to kill himself. The man also said he had a firearm on him. He had barricaded himself inside his apartment and was threatening to pull the trigger. 

The ETF arrived on scene and tried negotiating with the individual. “My concerns were that he was suicidal, had a possible firearm and there was a balcony in his apartment,” Sergeant Mark Armstrong said, of the situation that presented itself to his team.

In instances where someone is suicidal and there is a balcony, the ETF can rappel down from a higher level and stay on guard, just in case something happens. In this case, according to Armstrong, because there was a threat with a firearm, “we could not put a person on a rope with such a threat.”

Instead, Armstrong put a man in the adjacent balcony – although it was a good 15 feet away – as a precaution. They then began to negotiate with the man, who was known to police, and had been apprehended just a week earlier under the Mental Health Act. 

However, while 99 per cent of the time such incidents can be resolved through communication, this person was out of control, according to Sergeant Armstrong. 

“He was being hateful, he was very angry… there seemed to be no resolution… he wasn’t going to open the door,” he said. 

We are always updating our training with our partners to come up with the safest way to resolve such situations

“If we are making inroads, you say ‘you know what, this might be resolved because he wants help’,” Armstrong said. “We weren’t going anywhere.” 

With the added danger of the supposed firearm and the danger of the balcony and a seven-storey-drop, the ETF team had to think quickly to ensure the man’s safety. 

After 9 a.m., Armstrong called his supervisors, reporting that they had been in negotiations with the man for almost an hour and there had been no developments. 

“We are going to have to breach the door, get eye-to-eye with him,” he told them.

As the ETF team breached the door with a ram, the lower half of the door remained jammed. 

“He had barricaded it with milk cartons, records and so on,” all the while the team was speaking to the man, who was yelling and screaming. They managed to open the door, “took it right of the hinges” clearing through the debris. 

The man was yelling and swearing and, as Armstrong breached the doorway, he could see the man standing in the middle of the apartment, silhouetted against the bright windows. He was pointing something towards the team with his arm extended with something in his hand, in a way Armstrong describes as a “shooting position.”

The ETF team cautiously spoke to the man and, as their eyes adjusted, they could see it was a cellphone and the man was filming them. It’s something Armstrong said could have easily led to a deadly confrontation.

Upon seeing the team come inside the apartment, the man made a dash to the balcony, but an ETF member quickly Tasered him and he fell right at the balcony door. The man was apprehended and taken to hospital. 

In such a situation you are “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Armstrong. If the man had fled to the balcony and jumped he would have hurt himself or worse. 

“These are the type of things every ETF member has done,” explained Armstrong. “We wear an invisible badge of honour I say” of saving lives.

In mental health calls, where people are suicidal, the ETF team takes on a “humanistic approach,” according to Armstrong. 

“You can save a life and, after that, they may never think of it (suicide) again…if you can get them through a temporary crisis, sometimes they never look back… life is a rollercoaster and sometimes people have to work through things.” Often, according to Armstrong he is thinking of helping the person having a crisis “to just get them through it.”

It could have been a situation dangerous for everyone involved, said Staff Sergeant Jim Darbyshire. He added, however, that the ETF has been getting an increasing number of such calls lately that they have “become experts at responding” in such instances. 

“We are always updating our training with our partners to come up with the safest way to resolve such situations,” added Darbyshire. 

At the end of the day, Darbyshire said he was “quite happy with the way the team handled the situation – with patience and professionalism.”

For Armstrong, it was good teamwork that resulted in a life saved. 

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