Compassion over conflict helps public safety officers save lives, help people

July 08, 2021
Lieutenant Patrick Kelly in uniform on top deck of parking garage
Lt. Patrick Kelly stands on the top deck of the parking garage where he talked a man out of doing something desperate. Photo by Sarah Pack

Lt. Patrick Kelly, a former Bronx policeman now serving in what’s normally a much less stressful role as a public safety officer at the Medical University of South Carolina, got the call at home as he was settling in for the evening. 

“Chief Kerley said he was notified of a man that was barricaded on the roof of one of the garages threatening to kill himself. So I headed in. The chief called again and said, ‘He’s barricaded with a gun, and he’s set a deadline of midnight.’”

The man, Kelly learned, was terrified that a loved one in the hospital who needed an organ transplant wouldn’t get it in time and die. So the man decided to donate the organ himself – by taking his own life or getting police to shoot him.

Everyone on the scene was on edge. “The guy’s got a weapon, you know, so the officers there were wary of that, and they were in a defensive position, behind pillars, just making sure,” Kelly said.

“He was in his truck in the back corner. He came out, briefly, and went back in. So I got a little closer. I asked if anyone had tried to talk to him yet. And nobody was sure if there had been much of a dialogue.”

The man was yelling about his loved one, Kelly said. “I tried to engage him in conversation, calm him down a little bit. And I got the story that he’d been researching what might happen to his family member if they didn’t get a transplant immediately, and what he saw online made him panic. He was afraid they would die without his help.”

Kelly urged the man to talk to the doctors and not believe everything he saw on the internet. 

“He said, ‘I can’t watch my loved one die.’ I said, ‘I understand that. I lost my wife to cancer. I lost a son.’ As I was saying it to him, I choked up, and then he started crying. I think that connection helped him – that somebody understood what his pain was.”

Another family member called and urged the man not to hurt himself, pointing out that he didn’t even know if his organ would be a match for the patient. And Kelly kept talking.

“I said, ‘There's still time for a miracle here. Let's see what the doctors have to say. Your family needs you. This isn’t going to help.’”

The man finally gave up his gun, and Kelly walked with him to the hospital to get mental health help. And the man’s family member did get an organ transplant – from someone else.

It was a relief and another success for a public safety team that made a choice a couple of years ago to shift its focus, said Chief Kevin Kerley. “We do fight crime, and we will put people in jail, and we do the regular police work. But we took a look at what we were doing and realized that we’re here to help people.”

MUSC, an academic medical center, has a lot of public spaces. Anyone can walk around the campus. It also has a lot of visitors who have friends or family in the hospital.

A few face mental health crises, like the distraught man in the parking garage. There are also homeless people and people with chronic psychological problems who need to be supported, not arrested, Kerley said.

Major Dorothy Simmons Lieutenant Patrick Kelly and Chief Kevin Kerley with public safety  
Lt. Patrick Kelly holds his award with Maj. Dorothy Simmons and Chief Kevin Kerley.

Kelly is in charge of getting himself and his fellow officers the training they need to help them. So he’s brought in experts such as Shayna Epstein, a clinical operations manager at MUSC who specializes in helping people facing mental health crises. She held three training sessions to make sure she reached every officer.

“We discussed various mental health diagnoses and strategies that work to de-escalate and strategies to avoid. Law enforcement does not have required training specifically in mental health de-escalation, but it’s a skill that is utilized often in their career field,” Epstein said.

She also enrolled officers in Crisis Intervention Training, a week-long program put on by the National Institute of Mental Health specifically for law enforcement and security to learn about mental health and mental health treatment.

For help in working with homeless people, Kelly asked Charleston’s homeless outreach coordinator to speak to his team. “He gave training to everybody here, all the cops, all the supervisors, on what resources are available and who to contact.”

Normally, the officers use their training outside of the spotlight. But Kelly’s work in helping the man in the parking garage caught the attention of his colleagues, earning him the Life-Saving Award. His chief said it was well-deserved. 

“He views his job as caring about people, trying to help people. That's really what he does on a day-in, day-out basis. Whether it's another cop, whether it's a nurse, whether it's a homeless person, whether it's anybody – he views his role here is to try and help them.”

Kelly is glad he was able to help on a night when things could have turned out very differently. “I had a sense of just very calm going upstairs. I'm just going to talk to this man. No apprehension, no nothing. I have somebody in my life now, and she's convinced that's the hand of God.”

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