Suicide Watch Journalist Sandy Hume's suicide demonstrates the difficulty of knowing when someone is serious about dying.

After U.S. Park Police officer Tod Ritacco arrested journalist Alexander "Sandy" Hume for speeding early in the morning on Sunday, Feb. 22, he took Hume to the Park Police Central Booking Station at Hains Point and locked him in a holding cell. The police had asked Hume to remove his belt and shoelaces—standard measures to avoid jailhouse suicides. But Hume only turned in one shoelace and, after he'd been locked in his cell, used the other one in an attempt to hang himself, tying one end to the metal mesh grid of the cell door, looping the rest around his neck, and holding the other end tight as he dropped to his knees. Minutes later, the police heard Hume choking and burst into the room, saving him from himself.

After being treated for his wounds at D.C. General Hospital, Hume was taken to the Emergency Psychiatric Response Division (EPRD), a division of the D.C. Commission on Mental Health, where experts assessed Hume as no longer suicidal. He was released. Later that day, Hume killed himself in his Arlington home with a gunshot to the head.

"None of us viewed him as in the least depressed," says Marty Tolchin, publisher of the Hill, where Hume worked. "He was a journalist of extraordinary talent and promise, and we're still devastated by his death."

Any time somebody ends his own life, questions linger about what could have been done. No doubt friends of Hume, a well-liked reporter and son of Fox News Channel's Brit Hume, have spent the last two weeks asking themselves those questions. But no one had any idea that Hume was close to killing himself. No one, that is, except the cops and doctors who were with him for the last few hours of his life.

Hume's suicide seemed to be one of those random stories that drops out of nowhere. No one will ever know whether his rash decisions and reckless mind-set in the early morning hours of Feb. 22 reflected instability or just plain drunkenness. At 2:20 a.m., Ritacco spotted Hume driving his '92 green BMW south on the Clara Barton Parkway from Bethesda to D.C., exceeding 75 mph in a 45 mph zone, according to Sgt. Joseph Cox, public information officer for the U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction over the parkway. Ritacco pursued Hume and signaled to him to pull over. Hume instead accelerated, attempting to flee.

The brief chase continued past the D.C. border and out of Park Police jurisdiction, until Hume drove through a construction area along Canal Road east of Chain Bridge, whereupon Ritacco slowed down to avoid an accident. At the intersection of Arizona Avenue and Canal Road, however, Ritacco found Hume stalled and furiously turning his ignition. As he placed Hume under arrest for speeding, Ritacco, according to Cox, "detected the odor of alcoholic beverages about his person" and took him to Hains Point.

As he stood at the booking desk, Hume was charged with reckless driving, DUI, speeding, and a red-light violation. The police took his belt and left shoelace. After thoroughly searching his clothes and not finding the other shoelace, Ritacco and another officer escorted Hume back to the processing room, where they gave him a number of field sobriety tests—all of which Hume failed. After refusing a chemical breath test, Hume was placed by himself in one of the two holding cells off the processing room.

Less than five minutes later, Ritacco and the second officer "heard what sounded like Hume vomiting," according to Cox. The second officer entered the room and saw Hume "in a kneeling position, the shoelace tied to the grid of door, trying to choke himself. It wasn't tied off, however. He was holding it."

"It's generally frowned upon to put a person inebriated in a cell by himself," notes Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "The most common jail-based suicide is of a young male who's intoxicated, arrested for intoxication in some misdemeanor and, fearing punishment or humiliation, manages to hang himself."

"That's unreasonable," says Cox, suggesting that most police forces don't or can't abide by Berman's suggestion. "I don't know how we can process prisoners under that criteria....Are we supposed to bring our typewriter in the cell with him?" And to have put Hume in with another prisoner would have been unrealistic as well, Cox asserts. "It increases liability....I think we have a greater responsibility to protect the prisoners from each other, rather than have them baby-sit each other."

Cox says Hume was monitored closely, not only through a closed-circuit camera that beamed his activities to the booking desk, but by officers in the processing room, adjacent to the holding cells. "I think we did everything that we could," Cox adds.

After being treated by D.C. Fire and Rescue Personnel, Hume was rushed to D.C. General Hospital, where he arrived at 5:40 a.m. and was diagnosed with blunt trauma to his neck. According to a hospital spokesperson, he was discharged at 9:30 a.m. and transferred to EPRD, a unit of the Commission on Mental Health "separate and apart" from D.C. General, according to the spokesperson. "It just happens to be located on [our] campus."

Hume was one of about 6,000 patients whom EPRD evaluates each year. A team of nurses and at least one psychiatrist evaluate all patients to determine if they meet the criteria for mental illness or pose a danger to themselves or others. About 2,000 patients each year are committed to psychiatric care after this kind of triage.

Hume apparently convinced the medical staff that the crisis had passed and was promptly released from EPRD. A spokesperson for the Arlington County police confirmed that at 12:05 p.m. Monday the police "got a call that he was—wherever he was—dead." Police procedures bar releasing information on suicides other than to confirm that they have occurred. "It's not really a crime, so it's a little bit different from telling you about an armed robbery," explained the spokesperson.

Dr. Robert Keisling, executive director of EPRD, declined to comment on the Hume case and discussed only general procedures for involuntary hospitalization. EPRD's evaluation process, says Keisling, can take anywhere from two to 24 hours. "It depends on the severity of the situation," he says.

When EPRD officials conduct evaluations, according to Keisling, they take into account whether the patient is drunk. "We have a lot of folks who do impulsive things under the influence of alcohol or drugs who, when they sober up, are no longer considered to be suicidal," says Keisling. "All the studies have shown that 99 percent of the time the person doesn't go out and commit suicide."

But there's always that 1 percent, a group that unfortunately includes Hume. A talented, intelligent young man, Hume was able to form contacts in the high echelons of the Republican Party's leadership, scooping the national press corps on last year's failed House leadership coup. He certainly had the skills to hoodwink a shrink.

And his mind seems to have been set. As soon as Hume unlaced his right shoelace and hid it somewhere on his body, his decision to take his own life seems to have been made. Sobriety didn't change that, nor did the light of day. So Hume leaves behind not only friends and family who wish they could turn back the clock, but perhaps law enforcement and a hospital staff as well. As Berman noted, "We all should have such good judgment that we're always right." CP

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