Every time Det.-Cst. David Laing drives over the big orange bridge in Nelson he finds himself reflecting on the events of Sept. 14, 2013. That was the afternoon he rescued a suicidal woman from leaping over the railing, his bear hug the only thing keeping her from plunging into Kootenay Lake nearly 20 metres below.
“It’s one of those things you think about too much and for too many reasons,” Laing, 45, told the Star. “The biggest thing I remember is the loss of control. That really affected me. I don’t drive over the bridge like I used to.”
The Nelson police officer, who spent the first part of his career as a beat cop on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, has now been honoured twice for his rescue — first with a chief constable’s commendation from Wayne Holland in 2014 and now with a Lieutenant Governor’s Award that he will receive in Victoria on Nov. 19.
But that doesn’t mean that day’s events are easy for him to think about.
“It’s one of those mental challenges you have: why did I put myself at such risk?”
The answer: he just had to.
“You would’ve done the same thing. Anyone would’ve.”
‘It wasn’t like the movies’
The 2013 incident is just one example of the strain being put on the local police force by mental health calls. Police are routinely fielding over 1,000 “emotionally disturbed persons” calls each year, which comes to approximately 18 per cent of their annual call load.
In this case a woman, well-known to Laing and with a history of carrying knives, threatened to harm herself.
“There had been threats in the past, including one she’d already acted on. I knew this person was very goal-oriented,” said Laing.
While colleagues were searching for her across town in Cottonwood Falls Park, Laing headed out in the direction of the North Shore and spotted her midway across the bridge.
“As soon as I stopped the car she looked at me and made her decision: she was going to go.”
He sprinted after her in pursuit, barely managing to lunge forward and grab ahold of her arms and upper torso. As they grappled Laing anchored himself in place with a wedged knee through the railings — a move that would save both of their lives, but also wrench his patella into an agonizing position.
“In Mission Impossible they seem to be able to pull people into helicopters or pull people up with one hand, but the truth was I had no control.”
All he could do was hang there, hoping for back-up to come.
“At some point I realized, you know, I’m not getting back up by myself. A big part of the story that needs to be told is that my feet were off the ground. My only control was my knee. If it wasn’t for the people who came and pulled me back, we might’ve both gone over.”
Good cop, bad cop
According to Laing, it was the early years of his career that solidified his worldview. He was 25 when he was first posted to the Downtown Eastside, and these days he chuckles to think of his naiveté going in.
“I could’ve worked in Kitsilano. I could’ve worked in South Van. But I chose the Downtown Eastside because I was going to fix that place. In my mind it was a matter of law and order, these people were being disrespectful and I was going to get that place fixed by tomorrow night.”
That’s not how things worked out.
“At first I’m saying to myself ‘these people aren’t contributing’ but then after my first shift, maybe 12 hours in, I’m blubbering in the back of my police car because the stories I’ve heard from them are unbelievable. I thought ‘how can they live?’”
He was shocked to see the struggles of the aboriginal population and horrified by the human suffering that surrounded him daily. Between 1995 and 2005 there were periods when the area averaged 280 overdoses deaths a year.
“At some points it was an overdose almost every day, just in that little five-block radius of skid row.”
That’s when he mentally changed tack.
“I realized you can go in thinking you’re going to correct the problem with law and order, or you can just be a presence in the community. You have to be a good cop one day, a bad cop the next. Do your best to treat her with respect, but then the next day you have to arrest her for stabbing her boyfriend.”
Laing sometimes wonders if he stayed too long in that milieu, and feels it took an emotional toll on him. But he believes those experiences made him the cop he is today.
“I miss it a lot. I had a lot of great relationships down there.”
Exceptional valour in the face of extreme hazard
Nelson Police Chief Wayne Holland nominated Laing for the award, writing that “exceptional bravery, resourcefulness and courage were displayed during this incident.”
In his application Holland wrote “the selfless action of this police officer, who had very few resources available to him throughout the duration of the incident, was instrumental to the successful resolution of a very dangerous situation.”
Holland wrote “it should be noted Det.-Cst. Laing has saved the life of at least two other suicidal individuals during his tenure in Nelson.”
The first incident, in 2009, saw Laing volunteer to place himself in the fire department’s ladder truck to negotiate with a distraught man on the bridge. After 90 minutes of negotiation he coaxed the man back to the ground.
The second incident, in 2011, involved successfully wrestling a suicidal and aggressive man off a boat dock near the Prestige.
“The man, who was extremely violent and determined, fought aggressively to prevent Cst. Laing from saving his life.”
According to Holland, Laing’s service shows exceptional valour in the face of extreme hazard.
Mind benders and moral implications
Laing’s knee eventually healed — though it still aches — but it’s the potential implications of his actions that bother him most.
“It was a selfish thing in some ways,” Laing said. “I knew the person involved and I knew she’d been through an amazing amount of stuff in her life, but I can’t think of my family and still say it was the smartest thing to do.”
He still questions it.
“Why did I hang over a bridge and allow someone else to decide if I live or die? Why did I give that responsibility to that person at that time? Then you realize anyone would’ve. You just would’ve. I made the decision I was going to stop her and I did.”
But when he thinks about his family now, he wonders if he made the right choice.
“Your kids are mad at you a little bit, because people — they don’t mean to be insensitive — they say ‘your Daddy almost died and he was hanging off a bridge.’ My daughter’s very protective and she’s losing her mind. So I’m thinking what if my knee hadn’t caught? What if I slipped?”
That question niggles at him.
“I was at her mercy. She could’ve flailed, grabbed my face or belt. She could’ve made it a lot worse.”
Laing said his main takeaway from this event is simple: we’re not doing enough to help the impoverished and marginalized people in our community.
“Some people don’t get it. If you had one day in their life, you’d be a basket case. These are broken people, but they deserve respect. The question is how do you give it to someone who is broken? It’s a real mind-bender.”
That being said, he did receive a heartfelt letter of appreciation from the woman he rescued that day.
‘I know people are watching me’
Laing is now an eight-year veteran of the Nelson Police Department, and enjoys small-town life with his wife Jacquie and his children Matéa and Alex.
To operate effectively in a small town, he said, it’s important to treat people with respect.
“Here’s a funny trick: if you treat people with respect and speak to them on their level, they tend to treat you the same way back.”
So rather than yelling at teenagers drinking in Gyro Park, he might instead decide to lecture them on drinking and driving, share stories from his own experience and warn them about the dangers of fentanyl.
“If I come in with that attitude ‘I’m a big man and I’m going to mess up your night’, there’s nowhere to go from there.”
And he likes the feeling of small town accountability.
“I know people are watching me, and watching out for me. In Nelson we have a pretty good community.”