An inside look at a day in the life of a Pittsburgh Police crisis negotiator

Content warning: We want to caution that this report addresses suicide and some of the details may be difficult for viewers.

The distance from the very top of the West End Bridge to the river is normally around 175 feet. Back in 2020, a man climbed this bridge fully intending to jump.

“I honestly don’t remember walking up to this bridge,” said Michael Booher.

But Michael Booher says he’ll never forget Pittsburgh Police Sergeant Stephanie LaBella.

“I think I remember grabbing the side of the bridge and seeing if I could hold onto it, and then I was just up there at the very top,” said Booher.”

Help is available: Click here for more resources if you need mental health support

On Jan. 4, Channel 11 arranged for LaBella and Booher to return to the West End Bridge together to reflect.

“We were here for hours,” said LaBella.

LaBella remembers the call about a man on the top of the West End Bridge. That was on July 9, 2020.

“In my own head, I’m like he’s probably not on the superstructure,” said LaBella. “They just say that. He’s on the railing. I get there. And I look up and I’m like, Oh, he definitely is at the top of the superstructure.”

LaBella says it was about 95 degrees on that day. On the bridge deck, LaBella and other members of the Tactical Negotiations Team within the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

“We’re like, how are we going to do this,” said LaBella. “Because you don’t even know who it is. Right? You have no information. You just see a guy up there.”

LaBella says they started yelling up to Booher. Calling him on his cellphone that was almost out of battery. Gathering any kind of information they could about him. Anything to try to get through to him to get him down alive.

Channel 11′s Alyssa Raymond asked Booher if LaBella and the negotiators saved his life. He said they did.

“She knew the things that were important to me in life, and she just had to remind me and show me them,” said Booher.

“We never made any empty promises,” said LaBella.

After two hours, Booher climbed all the way back down the bridge. To this day, he still can’t seem to find the words. Weeks later, Booher showed up to the Zone 1 police station.

“He thanked us,” said LaBella. “We took a photo together, and he said you guys saved my life. He said I was in a bad place, and he said I’m doing much better now.

LaBella says follow-ups like this are rare. While this day on the job sticks with her the most, others linger too for very different reasons.

“We’re dealing with a lot of people and you know, not on their best day,” said LaBella.

When someone dies by suicide, she carries the emotional impact home with her and copes to get back on our city streets by turning to CrossFit and her dogs.

“Even on the worst barricades where I’m saying like there’s a hardcore criminal,” said LaBella. “Even the worst day, we don’t want to fail. A win for us is you surrender peacefully. No matter what you’re going through.”

As Booher continues to make peace with his past, he’s thankful he gets a chance to do that and others do too thanks to people like Sergeant LaBella.

“I just had to realize there’s going to be bad times,” said Booher. “It’s not always going to be good, but there’s always somebody that will help you.”

“It can be traumatic, but if not us then who”

You can’t miss the armored vehicles and SWAT. Right by their side, often overlooked, are specially trained members of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

“We’re just there to kind of listen,” said Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Lieutenant Logan Hanley. “Respond to the emotion. Acknowledge that it could be a very frightening or frustrating situation for somebody to be in, but if they continue to talk with us and communicate, we can facilitate a peaceful outcome.”

Lieutenant Logan Hanley leads the department’s tactical negotiations team. It’s made up of about 25 people.

“We keep showing up because we have to,” said Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Detective Frank Niemiec.

Last Summer, Detective Frank Niemiec showed up at a home in the city’s Garfield neighborhood as sheriff’s deputies served an eviction notice.

“Unfortunately, that incident on Broad Street began with gunfire from the subject,” said Niemiec.

For more than six hours, Niemiec says they tried to make contact with Will Hardison as he fired thousands of rounds of ammunition.

“Throughout the entirety of it, we were actively engaged with trying to get him on the phone,” said Niemiec. “Trying to get through to him. Trying to open a dialogue that we could resolve that without anyone getting hurt. Himself included. And unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”

That was just one of the 63 unexpected callouts for the tactical negotiations team in 2023. Then, another 40 times they assisted SWAT with serving warrants. Hanley says it’s really hard to quantify the success of the team even if the person comes out alive. Most of the time, they either go to jail or are committed to a psychiatric facility.

“It’s not like we won,” said Hanley. “It’s this person who has a very long road ahead of them, but they didn’t do anything as drastic and final as completing suicide that particular day, and it’s just relief. It really is. We’ve had people commit suicide in front of us. While we’re talking to them. And yeah, those stay with you.”

Hanley says they just have to trust the process, which was created by the FBI.

“There’s a very specific way that we talk to people, and that’s based on decades of research and experience in crisis negotiations from people all over the country,” said Hanley.

“Some of the techniques beyond simple active listening are recognizing that when people are in a highly emotional state their ability to be rational is decreased,” said Niemiec.

The negotiators do a deep dive into the person’s life and quickly try to learn which family members or friends they can bring into the situation to help decrease those emotions.

“And when their ability to be rational has come up, if we’ve been successful in creating a rapport with that person we can then influence a positive behavior change,” said Niemiec. “Just trying to come up with positive themes that might help the person in crisis realize that this doesn’t have to be the end.”

They strive for what most would call a win.

“It can be stressful,” said Niemiec. “It can be traumatic, but if not us then who.”

We understand the importance of knowing where to turn when you need help. That’s why we put together this Resources Guide with a list of important resources available.

NATIONAL

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.

  • 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

  • Provides emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

  • 1-800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line

  • Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime.

  • Crisis Text Line serves anyone, in any type of crisis.

PENNSYLVANIA

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Keystone Pennsylvania

  • NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania is dedicated to improving the lives of children, adolescents, adults and families affected by mental illness through recovery-focused support, education and advocacy.

  • CLICK HERE to find your local NAMI.

PA 211 and United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania

  • Get help with mental health crisis lines, counseling and treatment. This includes support groups, case management and mentoring programs.

  • To get help from a resource navigator, text your zip code to 898-211 or dial 211.

  • CLICK HERE to find mental health resources in your area.

ALLEGHENY COUNTY

ARMSTRONG COUNTY

BEAVER COUNTY

BUTLER COUNTY

FAYETTE COUNTY

GREENE COUNTY

INDIANA COUNTY

LAWRENCE COUNTY

WASHINGTON COUNTY

WESTMORELAND COUNTY

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