Kevin Briggs reflects on 18 years of stopping Golden Gate Bridge suicides
As CHP Officer Kevin Briggs arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge’s North Tower, the jumper lifted himself over the rail. Briggs shouted out to him, and the man turned his body as he went over and landed on what is known as the chord, a 32-inch pipe that runs the length of the bridge, just below its lip.
Briggs’ first thought was that he had lost the man, but Kevin Berthia’s head was pressed against the red steel railing. The wind pressed against his back.
As Briggs rushed toward him, Berthia told him to stay back. Briggs did. He just wanted to talk, he said. Or listen.
A little more than 1½ hours later, Briggs and a colleague helped Berthia climb back over the rail.
“I honestly feel it could have been anyone in the world, and if it wouldn’t have been him, I wouldn’t be here today,” Berthia, during a recent phone interview, said of the March 11, 2005, encounter. He was preparing to speak at a Suicide Prevention Awareness Month event in Connecticut, where he would appear with Briggs, who retired in 2013 and lives in Petaluma.
“I needed him, who he is,” Berthia says.
In the 18 years he patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge, Briggs became oddly famous: he was the officer who saved would-be suicides. His TED talk video has been viewed more than 236,000 times. A painting by a fellow officer hangs in his den: in bright colors it depicts an angel with Briggs’ face reaching out toward a group of people standing on the chord who are reaching back toward him; Briggs’ is smiling, his expression one of concern.
He lives in a newish development of two-story hillside houses in west Petaluma with a view across Highway 101 to the hills outside town. In his garage is a waist-high safe that holds a large cache of bronze medallions the size of a large coin. They advertise his consulting service, Pivotal Points, which focuses on suicide prevention. Each is stamped with the title of Briggs’ memoir, “Guardian of the Golden Gate,” which he currently is promoting.
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world’s most prominent suicide locations. From its edges - nearly always the east one, because the vast majority of people contemplating suicide position themselves facing San Francisco - Briggs talked more than 200 people out of leaping.
He knows this because of what are termed “100 forms,” which CHP officers must file after their shifts, detailing every on-duty incident. They show the people he saved; they show the two he didn’t, those that he considers his failures. There were an average of four to six would-be suicides a month, he says.
A small, black-and-white sign is propped atop a tool chest in his garage: a revolver is aimed out of the sign, which reads: “Nothing inside is worth dying for.”
Dealing with depression
Briggs suffers from depression. It overtook him gradually, he says, until he sought help in the mid-1990s. He takes medication but won’t reveal publicly which one. “This is a crappy thing to say, but people say, ‘I want to be like Kevin Briggs, I want to take that drug.’ But maybe it’s the wrong one,” he says.
Briggs, who joined the Army out of high school and worked as a San Quentin State Prison guard before joining the CHP, says that he never has wrestled with serious thoughts of suicide. But depression remains a fixture in his life.
“It seems to be going OK. I think there’s room for improvement,” he says.
He is 52, 5 feet 9 inches tall, with brown hair touched at the temples by gray. Creases fan south from the corners of his eyes. He has fought testicular cancer, heart disease, and injuries from a motorcycle accident that left him with a concussion and rendered him unfit for work for months. He looks appropriately world-weary. But his eyes are warm and bright.
He grew up in Novato, where his ex-wife, from whom he was divorced in 2009, two sons, and his sister live together. His paternal grandfather killed himself - poisoning by carbon monoxide - when his father was young. Briggs says that because his father knows very little about that event, neither does he.
Over the course of a long conversation, Briggs’ voice rarely loses its even, competent tone. It’s easy to imagine him speaking gently, conversationally, with the desperate and lost.
Disappointed by church
Occasionally, though, another key is struck, as when he explains why he hasn’t gone to church since his mid-20s.
Briggs’ father was a staunch Catholic who attended Our Lady of Loretto Church in Novato. Briggs and his three siblings went through the parish school. But when his mother, a Protestant, died at age 49 of cancer, the church wouldn’t permit her Mass to take place there.