Having lost her family at the hands of a suicidal driver, Elber Twomey believes that the introduction of Applied Suicide Prevention Skills Training will equip gardaí with the necessary skills to deal with suicidal people and may prevent further tragedies.
The blame for my family’s death didn’t just rest with the man who killed them. It was shared with the police force employing the constable who was asked to watch out for Marek Wojciechowski RIP before he drove his car into us. While seconds before and after 2.57pm, July 6, 2012 remain etched on my heart, they don’t need to be repeated. One way or another, I believe nobody else needs to endure what myself and my family had to. Personally, I believe what happened to us should not just be seen as a story of tragedy. It’s actually very much also a story about training.
Some of you have heard about the death of my husband Connie, my 16-month-old son Oisín and my unborn daughter Elber-Marie and why I have campaigned about suicide awareness/prevention among An Garda Síochána ever since. I’ve mentioned their tragic deaths so many times now that I worry people might be sick and tired of hearing about my story. After all, there are tens of thousands of other families across Ireland missing loved ones this Christmas who died in their own tragic circumstances. So, don’t get me wrong, I don’t fool myself and think for one second I have a monopoly on tragedy. But I’ve never, until now, had a chance to directly address some of the very people who matter most in this campaign: You.
I’ll quickly recap: Myself and my family were on holiday in Torquay on our way to an indoor play area for Oisín just outside the seaside town in Devon. We were at a roundabout at the beginning of Hamelin Way. There was very heavy traffic and we were there for a while. As we waited at the junction at one end of Hamelin Way, a Vauxhall Vectra was being driven down in our direction from the other.
Driving it was Marek, who hours earlier had written a four-page suicide note and Devon and Cornwall Police were alerted to this. Units were asked to keep an eye out for him, while at about 2pm, he drove out to Hamelin Way – a stretch of mostly dual carriageway that runs for under two miles between two roundabouts. For the next 45 or so minutes, he drove up and down it a total of 11 times. He wasn’t speeding or driving erratically. He was for all intents and purposes, in my opinion, thinking.
Shortly after a police constable, who – by his own admission – wasn’t a trained pursuit driver – spotted him; he drove at up to 80 mph to catch up with him. Marek passed lorry driver Jeremy Spargo, who noticed he was followed closely by ‘a police car’ moments before he accelerated. The police constable signalled to Marek to pull over and had his lights flashing but he appears to have pulled back. However, it was too late.
As they both approached the single carriageway section, Marek accelerated and drove straight into us. He wasn’t driving erratically, he did not have his wife and children with him and he had not indicated that he would end his life using his car. The poor man was unwell. So then why the following at speed, the activation of the siren, the blue lights flashing and finally the hand gestures?
The Chief Superintendent who at the time was head of South Devon police, said nobody foresaw that outcome but stuck to the idea that the Force’s response was ‘in line with guidelines’. They did however amend their Police Pursuit Policy since and now only TPAC (Tactical Pursuit and Containment) trained police officers can initiate a pursuit. Furthermore having had contact with the Chief Superintendent in recent days I am delighted to learn that Devon and Cornwall Police are also introducing suicide awareness training for their police officers.
The media have been and remain incredibly supportive, as have cross-party politicians. Ministerial support has been in the shape of Leo Varadkar, who met me to discuss it when he was Transport Minister, and Frances Fitzgerald, who I met shortly after she became Justice Minister. And before she was made Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan was very fast in replying to an appeal I made to her for help.
She put me in touch with an Assistant Commissioner, who in turn introduced me to the training team in Templemore. Some 100 gardaí started their training at the Garda College on September 8th and I was delighted when they told me they will all undertake ASIST (Applied Suicide Prevention Skills Training) training before being assigned a garda station next April.
I do hope that they will also address the possibility of a suicidal driver. But while I don’t doubt his commitment and good work, I think he has a fairly extraordinary task ahead of him if he doesn’t get a huge increase in manpower and resources. Gardaí have assigned three officers to deliver the ASIST programme and more are expected to be tasked with its delivering. Officers are currently in talks with the National Office of Suicide Prevention to extend training throughout the Force. I think it would be great if they furthered this by using case studies in their suicide awareness training also, as in having victims speak directly to the trainee gardaí.
My thinking being that real life stories, both positive and negative, would be extremely effective in delivering the harsh reality of suicidal encounters and its life changing effects on yourselves and all involved. And indeed that this training will be available to you all in protected time.
As we head toward Christmas I expect there are people who are finding life extremely difficult and worryingly may be contemplating suicide. I am sure, as many of you are reading this, that some of you have had to take the emotional call from a heartbroken family member or friend who is reporting a loved one missing, who has left a suicide note or whom they suspect is of suicidal ideation.
Indeed many of you may have encountered a suicidal person attempting to self-harm and how you respond to the person has untold consequences, both on yourself and the suicidal person. While I totally respect that not every suicidal person can be saved I do believe that this training would really help the garda as well as the suicidal person.
Everyone appreciates that in 2012, the phenomenon of someone committing suicide by driving their car into another was very new. But the sad reality is that it can happen. Training was a factor then and training is a factor now. I really hope that we don’t have to wait for another “Twomey” tragedy.
Personally I started this article by appropriating blame. I hope you noticed it was in the past tense. These days, I’m beyond blaming people or feeling bitter about what happened. What happened, happened and there is nothing I can do to change that. But I can at least try to make sure it doesn’t happen to anybody else.
For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.