By Frank Peebles
Special to the Observer
WARNING: This story discusses suicide
Any RCMP member will tell you that their job routinely and necessarily puts them in contact with people in their worst states of mind. Counselling the suicidal is exponentially more frequent in the average policing day than investigating the homicidal.
So it was for Const. Lorne Smith of the Quesnel RCMP on a summer day in 2019. It was a lovely day for flying, and for one pilot he chose it as the day he was going to end his own life. Smith got the call from the pilot’s distraught family and he rushed to their home while the rest of the Quesnel RCMP rushed to other duties that this unfolding incident would require.
“With it came a layer of complexity that I had not ever encountered. This individual was flying his personal aircraft at the time and planning on crashing,” Smith said, remembering the moment. Another odd but helpful feature of the event was how the pilot was able to communicate by mobile phone from thousands of feet in the air. Had the call not gone through, the outcome could have been ghastly different. But the reception was good, and the pilot agreed to speak with Smith.
One of the biggest concerns was if the pilot’s dark intentions also involved possible casualties on the ground. Once the conversation got underway, though, “it became immediately clear that this person did not have any intention of hurting anybody else. He was in a mental health crisis. He had numerous things in his life that were just stacking up and weighing him down. He got to a point where he had no idea how to dig himself out of where he was. As he explained everything that was going on you could feel the heaviness in his voice. He wasn’t crying, but you could just hear the problems in his voice and being at a loss for how to deal with these issues. But what came through was he was a wonderful family man, he cared very much for his family, and this was one of the driving factors for his actions that day, is how is he going to make things easier for his family?”
Smith focused on shining a light on his family’s love for him even if there were problems. They put his loving company and good character above any of life’s issues.
“You’re trying to untie all the knots they have in their life, figure things out, show them the reasons they have to be alive, give them that perspective, and thankfully this gentleman was receptive to that and hearing what we were talking about and becoming agreeable,” said Smith.
The pilot came to the conclusion he would fly back to the Quesnel airport and safely land. He understood police would be waiting for him, so everyone involved needed to trust in each other that the interaction was going to end well.
Smith came to the airport to take the pilot into custody under the Mental Health Act, not the Criminal Code. The arrest involved a trip to Tim Horton’s so the two could share a coffee and have a visit on the ground. After that, it was over to GR Baker Hospital where the pilot met with mental health support staff and said farewell to Smith.
The two haven’t met since the incident, but Smith said he had heard the pilot was well and progressing with his family.
Smith was once a medic in the Canadian Armed Forces and received additional police training in communicating with those in deep distress. He credits all that and everyday experience with people in extreme states of mind for preparing him to talk down this distressed pilot.
The event earned Smith a Commanding Officer Commendation and Insignia For Outstanding Service, bestowed at a formal RCMP ceremony in Prince George.
Smith was swift to acknowledge the crisis negotiator at his side throughout the phone conversation, then-Sgt. Darren Dodge who is now the Staff Sgt. and Officer In Charge at the Williams Lake RCMP detachment. Smith also applauded the complementary work of Cpl. Ryan Grottolo, Const. Shelly Visser for “pretty much running the show at the airport,” Const. Dan Stone and, without exaggeration, the entire Quesnel Watch on duty at the time.
Smith also gave thanks to the pilot for finding strength and understanding in a time of crisis.
“He was a good man having a bad day. More than a bad day,” he said. “This had obviously been building on him for a great deal of time, but honestly, it turned out to be a very good day. As you can imagine, in this job, not all outcomes are as good as this one.”
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