When a distraught teenager in Fleetwood, England, needed someone to talk to, saying he felt like hurling himself into the sea, he turned to social media and his message ended up with the right person at the right time — even though he was 4,000 miles away.
"This young man had nowhere else to turn," Chief Constable Andy Rhodes of the Lancashire Constabulary, United Kingdom, told Fleetwood, Pa., police Chief Steven Stinsky, during a teleconference chat Friday. "He used social media to get some help. You gave him that help. As a result we were able to get to him quickly."
Lancashire is a ceremonial county that includes the town of Fleetwood on the northwest coast of England. The youth probably searched the internet for "Fleetwood police" and it took him to a borough in northern Berks County, an agricultural area with no waterfront.
Police often don’t reach a troubled soul quick enough, Rhodes said, evidenced by the recent discovery of a missing person’s body at the docks of the town of Preston near the constabulary headquarters.
I don’t think," Rhodes said to Stinsky, "when you go to bed tonight, Steve, that there can be any doubt that you saved somebody’s life, and you’ve done it from a long way away, which is a pretty big achievement."
The video chat was hosted by the Berks County Intermediate Unit at the education services organization’s headquarters off Tuckerton Road in Muhlenberg Township. Among the guests were about a half-dozen fellow police chiefs from around the county, Fleetwood Mayor Tammy Gore and Dr. Greg M. Miller, Fleetwood School District superintendent.
Rhodes said the "incredible story," as chronicled in a Sept. 10 Reading Eagle article, has been making the rounds along ports of Lancashire, and it underscores that law enforcement on both sides of the ocean share the same values.
Gore expressed hope that the borough can continue to develop the relationship with its sister city besides in crisis situations.
Gore presented the chief’s constable’s commendation to Stinsky "in recognition of his extraordinary effort to provide crisis support to a suicidal teenager in Fleetwood, Lancashire."
“We’re proud of Chief Stinsky every day and thankful to have him,” Gore said. “And for him to reach across the ocean to our sister city makes him even more special.”
How it happened
The account begins with the 16-year-old from the coastal city of Fleetwood sending a message to the Fleetwood Police Department’s Facebook page. The message showed up at 3 p.m., but since the social media site isn’t monitored 24 hours a day, it wasn’t seen until about eight hours hours later when Stinsky checked for Facebook messages from his home before going to bed.
"The message was placed by an individual saying he needed someone to talk to because he felt he wanted to kill himself," Stinsky told the Eagle in an interview in early September. "I responded back to him saying, 'Where are you?' and got a one-word answer saying, 'home.' "
He passed the information onto an on-duty officer, but the officer found no record of the youth on the PennDOT database and other resources available to police.
In the meantime, the teen sent another message about 3 a.m. on Aug. 14, writing, "I feel like suicide. Goodbye."
Arriving at work later that morning, Stinsky scoured social media and managed to find the messenger’s personal Facebook page. Based on the vernacular used to describe his apartment ("flat") and job ("tram car driver") the chief deduced the message was from someone in the United Kingdom rather than the U.S.
While continuing to chat with the teen over Facebook, Stinsky searched the internet to find a contact number for the police department in Lancashire.
The British police urged him to keep talking to the young man if he felt comfortable doing so.
The young man said he was 16 but offered little else. At one point, he indicated he was heading to the Blackpool waterfront to hurl himself into the sea.
As the online chat continued, Stinsky gathered more identifying information and passed it on by telephone to his British counterparts. He learned there was a missing person report for him.
Over four hours, while handling other duties, Stinsky provided a sympathetic ear and encouraging words while continuing to gather information about his location and where he was headed.
The youth has autism as well as mental health struggles, Chief Inspector Gary Crowes told Stinsky on the conference call.
"He’s fine. He’s well. He’s being supported by our social services in the UK and receiving mental health services," Crowes said. "We really appreciate it, Steve. Thanks."
Getting everyone together
The chat and award presentation was orchestrated by Christopher Neidert, who retired two years ago as chief of the Exeter Township Police Department. Stinsky succeeded Neidert as commander of the Berks County Emergency Response Team, which is modeled on the SWAT concept.
Neidert used information in the newspaper story and his membership in the International Association of Chiefs of Police to make contact with the Lancashire Constabulary. He was put in touch with Rhodes and shared the article with him.
Rhodes sent a package to Neidert’s home that contained the plaque inscribed with the chief’s commendation, a chrome "bobby" hat and patch and hardcover notebook, all inscribed with the Lancashire Constabulary insignia. There was also a card in a sealed envelope for Stinsky to open later.
Stinsky, who wasn’t told about the commendation in advance, said he appreciated the recognition, but is mostly happy for a positive outcome, which is something police everywhere strive for.
"It’s a testament to the supportive network that we’ve built, the training environment here in Pennsylvania," Stinsky said, choking back tears. "And it speaks volumes of law enforcement across the world that we work so well in parallel to come to a great conclusion like this."
Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams, who attended the teleconference, said law enforcement members don’t get enough recognition for all of the work they do to help people.
Dr. Jill Hackman, executive director of the intermediate unit, which supports all 18 Berks public school districts, said this of Stinsky: "He is not only a model for all of us, he serves as an advisor and go-to person here across the education system."”
Rhodes said it was a "real privilege" and unique experience to be on a video chat with Stinsky and his American colleagues.
“If we were doing this together in Lancashire,” he said, “we would have a big pot of British tea up.”