Monitoring chat prevents suicides

Exclusive: Police, moderators, and Internet providers mobilize to save teens.

chat room 88 (photo credit: )
chat room 88
(photo credit: )
Most teens who are attempting to commit suicide don't expect the knight in shining armor who comes to their rescue to be dressed in a police uniform. But for the 12 people rescued by last-minute police interventions since January, a new program in which police monitor Internet chat rooms helped to prevent them from ending their lives. With an increasingly streamlined system, police can now respond within a relatively short time to calls for help broadcast through on-line forums. In an effort coordinated by the National Police Control Center, deep in the basement of the National Police Headquarters, officers, Internet chat-room moderators and Internet service providers are all mobilized to prevent potential suicides. Last month, police proudly added another such "save" to their statistics. A teenager in the Sharon area entered an Internet chat forum and said she intended to take her own life. A concerned civilian, based in the South, contacted police, who managed in a number of hours to locate the house from which the computer message was sent. Police called the residents, and reached a man who confirmed that he did indeed have a daughter who fit the description of the girl from the chat room. He told police his daughter was sleeping in her bedroom. When police entered the room, they found that the girl had swallowed a number of potentially deadly pills, then passed out. Ch.-Supt. Shuki Hadad, who was commanding the control center throughout the incident, said that had a few more hours passed, the outcome "would have been very different." "People here act as if each incident was their own child," said Hadad. "It's demanding, fastidious work, but it's holy work." The entire mechanism is set into action when a chat-room moderator, or even a chat participant, calls police to inform them that another participant has threatened to kill himself. The police operator passes on the report to the national control center, which coordinates police activities in all such incidents. Police at the national center then consult the police negotiations unit in order to judge the severity of the situation and attempt to locate the IP address of the participant's computer. The IP address is the computer's unique "calling card" through which Internet sites can identify their users, but occasionally a computer will switch IP addresses, throwing off police attempts to locate it. Occasionally, when police are contacted by chat moderators, the moderators themselves already know how to provide the IP number to police. Police then work with ISPs to find the street address of the Internet service through which the specific computer logged in to the Internet. The national control center - which has the ability to see the location of every police patrol car in the country - contacts the district in which the incident is under way and dispatches the nearest available police officer to the scene, together with a member of the negotiations squad who has training in psychology. Police say that the entire process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a number of hours - but as their experience grows, and more chat-room moderators and ISPs are aware of the system, the process is being fine-tuned. In fact, Ch.-Supt. Ehud Peled, the national control center's commander, said he hopes to host a joint meeting in the near future with chat-room moderators to increase their awareness of the program. In 2005, the national control center received 200 reports of Internet-related emergencies. More than 55 percent involved people who had expressed severe psychological distress, and 5% resulted in police intervention that prevented a suicide. As of January, police had chalked up 12 successful interventions in which quick police response saved lives. Peled said that an increased awareness and sense of responsibility among chat-room moderators was a factor in the increased police success. Other Internet messages that are determined by psychologists from the negotiations team to be less than life-threatening are routed to the National Unit for Computer Crimes. Internet chat rooms - on-line forums for dialogue - have become increasingly popular venues for teen interaction in recent years. While much of the interaction is characterized by common interests such as hobbies or youth movements, a few Israeli forums also target troubled youth. Such chat rooms are often moderated by trained staff, and even offer opportunities for one-on-one conversations with mental health professionals. Those staff members, police say, are trained to contact police through a specific emergency hot line should the need arise. Recognition of the process's success is not confined to Israel's borders. Recently, a Swedish police team visited Peled's unit to learn about their strategies. The Swedish delegation told the unit that they hoped to establish a similar procedure. But Peled does not see the unit's efforts to prevent teen suicides as anything extraordinary. "The desire to help others is part of the Israeli experience, and the value of the life of a single person is part of the Israeli character," Peled said. "It may seem like a lot of work to save one teenager, but we say that to save one life is as if you have saved the entire nation. "In the police, our goal here is simply to give the best service possible to the public. And in this case," Peled smiled, spreading his arms out to encompass the breadth of the control center, "it is something that leaves you with an enormous feeling of satisfaction as well."