By Nicole Minier
COLUMBIA CITY — “I hope to think the stars were aligned that night — that everything that happened was for a reason.”
Columbia City Police Chief Tony Hively reflected on last Tuesday’s crisis with thankfulness that everything worked out to a positive outcome — the female juvenile safely came down from the 50-foot-high rooftop of the Whitley County Courthouse after scaling the exterior scaffolding and threatening to jump.
It was a matter of right place, right time circumstances that eventually led to the safe ending.
At 6 p.m. Tuesday night, Columbia City’s Common Council held its regular meeting with a short agenda, lasting only about 15-20 minutes compared to its typical hour-long meeting. Due to the short agenda, city department heads, such as Hively, were not required to attend the meeting, but Hively came to discuss one topic with the council — otherwise, he likely would not have been in downtown Columbia City at that time of day.
Following the meeting, Hively went to his office to catch up on email before going home, and Councilwoman Jennifer Romano stayed after the meeting for about 10 minutes to discuss a topic with IN|Whitley County Editor Nicole Minier.
When Romano left City Hall that evening, she heard unfamiliar noises coming from the area of the Courthouse.
“Downtown Columbia City at night is usually quiet, the noises were something out of the ordinary,” Romano said.
That’s when she spotted the teenager atop the courthouse and called 9-1-1 for help. Hively, just across the street at City Hall, quickly made contact with the girl, while other law enforcement officers scaled the scaffolding, which was also used by the girl, to get onto the roof.
“My hands felt tied and we only had one option — using our verbal communication skills,” Hively said. “Thankfully, she was listening to what we were saying and we were able to delay her until the professionals got here.”
Law enforcement, paramedics and first responders quickly arrived to the scene as the Whitley County Sheriff’s deputy and conservation officer atop the roof talked to the girl until professional negotiators arrived. Additionally, police had help from a representative of the Bowen Center next door.
“They started a conversation and tried to get her focused on something else, to distract and delay until the proper people came,” Hively said.
Meanwhile, representatives from two local businesses, B&J Rental and Performance Rental, brought inflatable bounce houses to put on the ground near the Courthouse.
A team of six negotiators from the Allen County Police Department worked together to talk the child off the ledge — nearly 1.5 hours after the 9-1-1 call — and a sigh or relief was let out by all involved.
“I never want to see something like that again,” Hively said. “There is nothing worse than feeling so helpless and hoping you’re saying and doing the right thing.”
Although he’s never had an incident like this in his 20 years as a police officer in Columbia City, Hively said the police and fire departments are looking into further training and equipment that could assist with future situations.
“We achieved the best outcome in this situation, but we will utilized this moment to better prepare ourselves in the future,” Hively said. “We will map out a strategy to not only help people in that situation, but also make sure our personnel are safe from risk of injury.”
Romano commended the work of all who responded, and is calling the community to action about mental health in Whitley County.
“I am incredibly proud of the work of our police department and negotiators, and especially Tony,” Romano said. “As hard as this situation is and as powerless as a lot of us felt, this situation has presented us with some things to think about as a community going forward. Primarily is the issue of mental illness in our community and being real about what we need to do as a community. We have kids and adults who are struggling — I don’t know that all the mechanisms are in place to help them. That was a very loud cry for help to this whole community, we need to look into mental illness and we need to look into what we can do as a community to help those who are struggling.”
The Columbia City Police Department was assisted by Columbia City Communications, Allen County Police Department negotiators, Whitley County Sheriff’s Department, Whitley County Dispatch, Columbia City Fire Department, Columbia City Utilities, Parkview Whitley EMS, Bowen Center, B&J Rental, Performance Rental and Whitley County Courthouse Security. Exterior construction scaffolding was erected for recent repairs to the Whitley County Courthouse.