AP NEWS

Officer’s response to suicide threat merits Medal of Valor

March 21, 2019

Lone Star College Police Captain Sandra Joachim spoke calmly to the young man holding a knife to his own throat in the woods beside the Tomball library.

Joachim’s actions that day in November 2018 merited the LSC Police Medal of Valor, which she received during the LSC board meeting in March.

The 20-year-old man wasn’t an LSC student, but was in the public library at LSC’s Tomball campus when he told his grandmother he would commit suicide. He stormed out of the library and into the nearby woods.

“Our patrol officers went looking for him,” said LSC Chief of Police Paul Willingham. “It took about 10 or 15 minutes before they tracked him down.”

The uniformed patrol officers attempted to approach him through the dense foliage. Each time they tried, the young man became more aggravated.

“He already had a knife to his throat and he’d press the knife a little deeper,” Willingham said. “He became very agitated to the point where the officers would back off. In the end, all we could do was try to talk him down, but he didn’t really want to talk to anybody because everyone was in uniform.”

Joachim was at the LSC Police Department central headquarters on the University Park campus when she heard the call come in and started heading toward Tomball.

She arrived at the scene in plain clothes, tucked her badge into her pocket and handed her equipment to Willingham.

“She said, ‘Here, hold this,’” Willingham said. “So, I think from the very beginning, she was like, ‘I can do this.’ She had the confidence to reach out to him.”

After about 10 to 15 minutes of talking to the man from the outskirts of the woods, he was willing to let her approach him to talk face to face.

“The way she described it to me was she just spoke like how a mother would speak,” Willingham said. “She decided to take an empathetic approach and earn his trust. She said she was willing to sit there and talk to him for as long as it took, even if it took hours.”

The young man finally abandoned the knife and exited the woods, escorted by Joachim.

During the Lone Star College board meeting in March, LSC Police Chief Paul Willingham presented Joachim with the LSC Police Medal of Valor, which recognizes brave, purposeful action in a unique and potentially dangerous situation.

Joachim’s daughter traveled from out of town to attend the ceremony as a surprise to her mother. This was the first time since 2013 that an LSC Police Medal of Valor had been bestowed upon an officer.

“The Medal of Valor aspect comes in because in our citation, you have to have a risk of harm to yourself,” Willingham said. “She walked in there without her gun, without any other weapons or tools or body armor and basically sat next to a man armed with a knife to try to talk him down. He could have easily turned that knife on her.”

But her role in the situation didn’t end when the man let go of the knife, or when they emerged safely from the woods.

Joachim boarded an ambulance with the young man and his mother and accompanied them to HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball where he could receive a mental health evaluation. Willingham said the man had been diagnosed as bipolar and was not on medication.

Joachim not only took it upon herself to go with the family to the hospital, but she has kept in touch.

“In fact, she spoke with the family just a few days before the commendation,” Willingham said. “She’s trying to help him out long-term as well, which I’m pretty impressed with.”

Willingham said the young man is now on a medication plan and seems to be responding well. Joachim has been encouraging him to consider enrolling as a student at LSC. College officials have discussed possible financial assistance if he decides to enroll.

“We’re going to try to work some scholarship money for him to at least get some help paying for his school here if he’s ready to come,” Willingham said.

Willingham has decades of policing experience in the higher education setting and says that mental health crises can begin to manifest for the first time in people’s late teens and early 20s.

“Physiological development coupled with the stressors of college life; perhaps you’re not living at home anymore and you’re on your own for the first time,” Willingham said.

Due to the prevalence of mental health crises among young adults, Willingham said college and university police departments put a lot of focus on training to deal with these situations. The situation outside of the Tomball library will be used as a learning experience.

“We’re going to continue to train on it and we’re even using some of the lessons learned to go back and say, ‘what are some of our training and policies we can add to, based on what we just experienced in this situation?’” Willingham said.

As Willingham points out in the Medal of Valor Citation he read to trustees during the March board meeting, Joachim “went above and beyond the call of duty that day.”

“She sacrificed her own well-being to care for another,” Willingham told trustees. “Her concern, kindness, and courage made a difference in that young man’s life, possibly even saving it.”

Joachim has 32 years of policing experience. She retired from Jersey Village Police Department in 2013 and has been a captain at the LSC Police Department for over six years. She’s worked as the commanding officer of the University Park campus and last year became the department’s chief of staff.

For the past two years, her department of about 190 people has voted her Supervisor of the Year.

“She’s got that kind of personality that she can talk to people very well and she can develop an instant rapport with people,” Willingham said. “Just by talking to her, you would instantly understand how she was able to talk to the young man. She’s a uniquely special person.”

mfeuk@hcnonline.com