On Dec. 13, 2009, Officer Rob Angelo of the Bangor (Maine) Police Department drew on his 18 years of law enforcement experience to keep a distraught woman from jumping into an icy river to her death. For his actions he was named the August 2010 Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
If not for a concerned passerby, Angelo would never have known the woman was in danger. He was talking with a colleague on that cold winter night when a man slowed down in his car to alert the officers to a woman standing on the New Penobscot Bridge, which seemed especially suspicious in the middle of the night. "Mind you it's December in Bangor, Maine, and it's probably zero degrees out. So we headed over there," says Angelo.
When Angelo and two other officers reached the bridge, they saw a woman in her early thirties climbing over the railing. By the time he got out of his car, she was on the other side with a four-inch concrete lip under her feet and just a thigh-high metal railing to hold on to. The icy Penobscot River lay 100 feet below.
Angelo figured the only way to hold her attention and keep her from jumping was to talk and keep her facing him, so he started a conversation with her right away. But the woman wouldn't let them get close to her, so Angelo stayed about 10 feet away. The other two officers looked on from further away and helped close the bridge to traffic.
"As long as she was talking, we were going to stay there all day," says Angelo. "She kept telling us to get away so she could 'just do this and get it over with.' Obviously we weren't going to let that happen."
Normally the Fire Department would have sent out a boat to wait beneath the bridge and attempt a water rescue if the woman jumped. But because the river was so covered with ice, the department couldn't risk it. "If she had gone in, that was it.," says Angelo. "We knew that going in."
Another factor in the incident was the woman's clothing. She was wearing a thin long-sleeved shirt and pants, with no coat, so she was shivering uncontrollably in the below freezing temperature. She began shivering so violently that Angelo worried she'd fall from the bridge accidentally.
But what most worried Angelo was that this woman was different from most of the many people he'd seen threaten suicide. When she said she was going to jump he believed her.
"I guess what struck me about her was she was sober, she was educated, she was clear headed...not the usual that we deal with," says Angelo. "Not someone intoxicated out there for attention. I just got the impression she was for real."
As they continued talking, the woman told the officer that her two children had been killed in a car accident a few years ago and she wanted to end her life to end the pain she was feeling over her loss. As a parent, Angelo found a natural connection with the woman on this point.
"We talked for about half an hour, and I think one of the things that got [through to] her was that it was actually my daughter's birthday on that day, and I said, 'You can't do this on my daughter's birthday. Don't do that to me so I have that memory for the rest of my life.'
Angelo felt he was really getting through to the woman, but she'd been up on the bridge in the freezing air for a long time, and the chill finally got to her. She shivered so violently that she slipped.
"It just so happened I was close enough-maybe 10 feet-that I ran to her and was able to grab her," says Angelo. "She had one arm that kind of got caught on that top rail. Everything else was hanging. I just grabbed onto her and just held her there, kept her from falling the rest of the way."
But Angelo was unable to pull her over the railing himself. Fortunately, Officers Jim Hassard and Joe Baillargeon saw what happened and were on hand to pull both the woman and Officer Angelo to safety.
"The biggest help was having my two backup officers there, Joe and Jimmy. If they hadn't been there, almost as close as I was, then she'd have definitely gone in the river and, I don't know, potentially me. They're as much responsible for this as I am, that's for sure."
When asked what training helped Angelo end this incident safely, he scoffs.
"You know what the training is? 18 years in police work," he says. "I'm not going to say void all your training and ignore it all, but just be yourself, be real, and connect with them. That's mostly what police work is about. If you can talk to people that's 90 percent of your job."
Angelo is humble about his role in all of this and almost embarrassed by all the attention he's gotten. But he's happy with the ultimate outcome. "I know she's still in town and still doing all right, so...It feels good that she didn't hurt herself that night."
Find out more about the NLEOMF Officer of the Month program, sponsored by POLICE Magazine.