Home Investigations New Brunswick Doing Little to Address its Parking Garage Suicides

New Brunswick Doing Little to Address its Parking Garage Suicides

New Brunswick Doing Little to Address its Parking Garage Suicides

Seven people have committed suicide by jumping from the New Brunswick Parking Authority garages over the past five years. The only response so far has been to erect warning signs.
Elizabeth Johnsen, a nurse employed at Robert Wood Johnson University hospital, committed suicide on June 5, 2014, by jumping from New Brunswick’s Plum Street Parking Deck. Since then, six more people have jumped to their deaths from the city’s downtown garages, a Rutgers University graduate student among them.

The Plum Street Parking Deck is attached to the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

The rash of deaths in New Brunswick is part of a little-known epidemic of suicides at urban parking garages, a Rutgers Investigative Team found. But unlike in other cities, officials at New Brunswick’s parking authority have done little to prevent these tragedies.
On January 23rd, 2015, Colleen Freeman of Barnegat, New Jersey, committed suicide by jumping from the Gateway Parking Deck. On October 18th, 2015, Sandra Dolce of Monroe Township, New Jersey, committed suicide by jumping from the Paterson Street Parking Deck. On December 1st, 2015, another victim committed suicide by jumping from the Plum Street Parking Deck.
The fourth death is what finally spurred the New Brunswick Parking Authority to implement one simple, preventative measure: erecting signs in the stairways and elevators advertising the New Jersey Hopeline.
Yet on March 25th, 2017, Pascual Perez committed suicide by jumping from the Morris Street Parking Deck, despite officers and authorities being aware of his distressed emotional state, and the signs that attempted to dissuade such deaths.
On June 24th, 2018, another victim jumped from the Plum Street Parking Deck.
Pascual “Paco” Perez fell from the Morris Street Parking Deck in March 25, 2017.

On February 3rd, 2019, a 25-year-old female from Woodbridge committed suicide by jumping from the 10th floor of the Gateway Parking Deck. According to the police incident report, she “climbed over the ledge” and jumped “without hesitation.” There were several witnesses to this incident, which occurred at noon on a Sunday.

All of the suicides were brought up by concerned citizens during the public comment sections of the New Brunswick Parking Authority Board meetings. But the agency has avoided giving direct, transparent answers to how they are addressing the issue. Methods to prevent suicides beyond postings to raise awareness of the suicide hotlines have not been publicly described. In fact, spokespeople have refused to disclose further details.
Charlie Kratovil is a local community organizer and muckraker, and the founder and editor of the newspaper New Brunswick Today. On February 27th, 2019, Kratovil attended a New Brunswick Parking Authority Board meeting to ask about the most recent suicide,  on February 3rd, 2019.
“Was [the suicide] a part of the report? Is there any action being taken on that?” he asked.
“No, that was not a part of the report,” responded a New Brunswick Parking Authority board member.

Charlie Kratovil, the owner and editor of New Brunswick Today, argues that more action needs to be taken to stop suicides at New Brunswick city parking garages.

“I’m very concerned because I believe that since 2014 this would be at least the 7th person whose life ended in this way,” Kratovil said. “It’s pretty apparent that there’s a need for more action to be taken, and I trust that the Parking Authority is going to do something about this before another person’s life ends in this way.”
“It’s a serious issue, we take it seriously,” responded another board member. “We review our procedures from time to time to make sure that we’re looking at all the available options. We’re looking … I don’t think we’re ready to talk about all the things we’re looking at today. We study it, we take it seriously. It’s a horrible situation.”
“Can you talk a little bit about what is in place now?” Kratovil asked.
“Prefer not to,” the board member responded. “For security purposes.”
New Brunswick Today editor Charlie Kratovil (right) confronted the members of the New Brunswick Parking Authority, asking why more action hadn’t been taken to prevent suicides.

The avoidance of transparency by a government authority is not a new problem. Instead, it is a recurring issue.

“I certainly think that the government in New Brunswick lets people down on a regular basis,” Kratovil told us in an interview. “People are wishing and hoping that there was more help for them or when they needed them, people would be there, or… the police handled situations differently, that more was done, or things were taken more seriously. That is a pattern that the government is out of touch with the people, and has different priorities and doesn’t necessarily respond as quickly or as thoroughly as the people deserve.”

“The government in New Brunswick lets people down on a regular basis.” — New Brunswick Today editor Charlie Kratovil

Idaho’s Suicide Prevention Program was founded in 2016, thanks to public demand and state government funding.

How an Idaho city addressed parking garage suicides
The Suicide Prevention Program of Idaho has noted that parking garages are an at-risk location for suicide attempts by jumping because they are usually open and well-ventilated, provide easier access to greater heights, and tend to have less security. Several factors are considered when evaluating the safety of a parking deck relative to its risk of being a site for suicide: degree of enclosure, stairway and elevator location, rooftop accessibility, structure height, ledge design, and proximity of adjacent structures and buildings.
The International Parking Institute has a handbook for suicide prevention, response, and recovery. In a survey, 51% of parking facilities had either experienced a successful suicide or an attempted suicide. The International Parking Institute lists preventative measures similar to those noted by the Suicide Prevention Program. Structural and architectural changes can be costly, but less expensive solutions are also available to authorities striving for beneficial change: to be readily prepared, to promote community awareness and education, and to train relevant staff to properly deal with dangerous, emergency situations.
Given the rate of suicides, the New Brunswick authorities are not doing nearly enough to prevent these suicides from happening, especially in comparison to other authorities who have done more to prevent suicides in their own districts.
In contrast to the relative inaction demonstrated by the New Brunswick Parking Authority, the Parking Authority of Boise, Idaho, asked the Suicide Prevention Program to make an informal investigation after only one suicide attempt and one near suicide attempt occurred in one of its parking garages. In order to determine whether these were isolated incidents or indications of flaws on the part of authorities or the garage structure, the six Capital City Development Corporation garages in downtown Boise were investigated. Several recommendations were made for the parking garage structures, and other proper recommendations were also implemented.
After the fourth suicide at The New Brunswick Parking Garages, the Parking Authority installed signs providing contact information for the counseling service New Jersey Hopeline. Unfortunately, signs are considered ineffective for preventing suicides.

Boise Suicide Prevention Program project manager Kim Kane described the Capital City Development Corporation as a “wonderful partner” to work with in trying to prevent deaths in its parking facilities, because the body “adopted almost every single one of the six recommendations we made, including the most protective one,” preventative structural barriers, “which cost them about $50,000.” Barriers are the most “expensive” and “intrusive” method of suicide prevention, but are also the only method proven to prevent deaths.
“Barriers are the only thing that make a difference,” she has found in her 15 years of working in suicide prevention.
“There’s really not good evidence that signs matter all that much,” Kane said. In fact, most people intending to commit suicide do not bring their phones with them.
“The Parking Authority built these garages,” Kratovil explained. “It’s their responsibility to make sure they’re safe places, and that they’re not going to be creating a hazard or a danger to the community. Obviously if people are dying or falling from these facilities, it’s a problem that’s on them to address.”
“They are more liable if they do nothing,” Kane said, citing her professional experience in suicide prevention. “It would be pretty easy at this point in what we know about parking garages… and knowing that barriers are the only thing that make a difference… for someone in a court case to say, ‘yeah, they put up those signs… but those don’t work, and they’re known not to work.’ It’s known that only barriers work. If they continue to ignore the fact that only barriers work, I think they could be found liable.”

“They are more liable if they do nothing…. Signs don’t work, and they’re known not to work.” — Boise Suicide Prevention Program project manager Kim Kane

Kim Kane was the program manager of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Program during the analysis of Boise’s garages.

Besides structural modifications to prevent suicide, professional training and public education are also crucial.
“Professional groups need training” in suicide prevention, Kane explained. “The bulk of the training is the same, but then there are specifics… they need training appropriate to their profession.”
Kane also stressed the importance of the role of civilians whose loved ones may be contemplating suicide.
“Make sure that people understand the difference that restricting makes for people, because that’s the one thing that anyone can do for someone that they care about – that can actually make a difference,” Kane said.
“Everyone needs to know that it’s OK to talk about it.
“Recovery is the norm… most people who become suicidal survive. I don’t think we tell people that enough. They can survive because, guess what? Most people who come to feel the way they do do survive.”
According to the New Brunswick Parking Authority’s website as of December 10, 2019, the “duties of the Authority are to construct, improve, maintain and operate off-street parking facilities… and to improve conditions affecting public safety and welfare.”
It’s mission statement includes “providing and maintaining parking services and facilities that are clean, safe, and affordable.”
The website also encourages people to contact them “if you have a question and or need to report any issues.”

“Duties of the Authority are to construct, improve, maintain and operate off-street parking facilities… and to improve conditions affecting public safety and welfare.”

The address of the New Brunswick Parking authority is 106 Somerset St. 6th Floor, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. The phone number is 732-545-3118, and the fax number is 732-937-9262.
James M. Cahill has served as New Brunswick‘s mayor for nearly 30 years, since 1991. The city of New Brunswick’s website contains the following message from the mayor: “The health, wellness and pulse of our City comes from the foundation of a healthy and vibrant community, so please take advantage of all the City offers, use its resources and ask questions.”
The phone number for the mayor’s office is (732) 745-5004.
Other cities act quickly to prevent garage suicides
The New Brunswick parking authority has rarely discussed these mounting tragedies, or disclosed any of its actions or plans to prevent further deaths, according to minutes of the agency’s monthly meetings reviewed by a Rutgers student I-Team.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that, as of 2014, about 2 percent of suicides are due to jumping or falling, usually from railways, bridges, and parking garages.
The New Brunswick Parking Authority is supposed to meet once monthly. But its last meeting of 2019 was in September.

The Boise Suicide Prevention Program noted in its report that parking garages are usually less enclosed for ventilation purposes, give people easier access to heights and have less security. The SPP took a few things into account when conducting its investigation: structure height, degree of enclosure, rooftop accessibility, stairway and elevator location, ledge design, and proximity of adjacent buildings and structures.
In several agency meetings, however, New Brunswick residents have demanded to know what safety measures the NBPA has taken. Only after the sixth death, in 2018, did the agency finally disclose that it was posting signs in its garage elevators with phone numbers to helplines, and perimeter alarms that sound when someone crosses a ledge. Any other more substantial methods apparently cannot be disclosed.
But what should the parking authority, and the city, be doing?
A lot, judging by how other cities have responded to the epidemic of suicides at parking decks, the I-Team found. In Boise, Idaho, for example, the Suicide Prevention Program did an informal investigation after only one suicide attempt, and one near suicide attempt in 2016. Program officials investigated the six Capital City Development Corporation garages in downtown Boise, attempting to figure out whether this was an isolated event, or a potential trend.
Kane said the corporation erected perimeter barriers, the only preventative measure known to work.
At the end of its analysis, the authority found a few things that can be universally applied to all garages. Stairways with low railings and are highly exposed to the air can be accessible to those who wish to climb over. Wider ledges can provide more chance for someone to sit and stall a suicide attempt. The SPP recommends enclosing air-gapped stairways with glass, which will still look open but will be safer, adding thin metal railing to ledges to deter people from climbing over, geofencing or virtual barriers, appropriate signs, and training the workers in each garage.
At the time of the analysis, Kane was program manager at the suicide prevention program at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Kim and her team conducted the analysis after a rather unusual case: a high school aged boy had left his home one night, drove to the parking garage with the intent to jump, when another woman jumped from a lower floor below him.
Kane stressed the importance of conducting an analysis no matter the circumstance.
She also said that, realistically, hotline signs were not very useful. Putting up signs in parking garages would essentially have the same effect as putting them on bridges. Most of the time, people don’t even have their phones with them. It’s important to erect signs anyway — but it’s proven an insufficient measure for preventing suicides.
The only way to positively reduce suicides and attempts is to have a physical barrier.
Eliminating garages as a means to commit suicide doesn’t lead to someone just substituting it for a different method, Kane said.
“Make sure that people understand the difference that restricting access to legal means makes for people. Because that’s the one thing that anyone can do for someone that they care about that can actually make a difference,” she said.
People are drawn to certain means because of accessibility and familiarity. Since people have certain affinities for certain means, if those means get restricted, people are unlikely to find a new mean. If the Parking Authority were to barricade its garages, it should not be assumed that the people who came there to commit suicide would be unlikely to find a different mean to do it, she said.
Three suicides have taken place via the Plum Street Parking Deck since 2014.

When asked about the effectiveness of perimeter alarms, she said that there would be lag time. Not only that, but employees would have to be trained and trained correctly to talk someone down. To her, the surefire way to protect people is to use barriers.
The International Parking Institute has a handbook for suicide prevention, response and recovery. An IPA survey found that 51% of parking facilities surveyed had experienced either a suicide or an attempt. The IPA lists similar preventative measures, as the Suicide Prevention Program, and goes on to talk about preventative measures taken in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
How Lancaster, Pennsylvania addressed its parking garage suicides
In Lancaster, there were five suicides in two years. The head of the parking authority decided that an urgent preventative program was necessary. First, the authority instituted a “no tolerance policy” for people on the roof who weren’t going to or from a car.
The International Parking Institute published a guide making recommendations for preventing suicides in parking garages.

Larry Cohen, the head of the parking authority, then coordinated a “Suicide Summit” with local law enforcement, community members, mental health experts, and the parking authority, where they all underwear suicide prevention training. The Lancaster Parking Authority also decided to fence in the top two levels of its garage. This alone is more than anything that the New Brunswick Parking Authority has done in the last five years.
The IPI concluded that there are many potential preventative measures that any parking authority body might take. Physical structural changes can be costly, and would need to be considered by the parking authority. But less costly solutions are still available: to be prepared, to invest in the help of the community to watch for signs, and to train the staff to effectively deal with any urgent situation.
The New Brunswick Parking Authority has evidently taken none of these measures to prevent further suicides. If it has, its leaders haven’t communicated any such efforts to the public. While the authority has posted signs in the elevators, there are no signs on the walls of each floor. If someone is going to the top floor to jump, he or she won’t see the signs on the elevators and in stairwell while driving up. When one of our team members leaned over the edge of the top floor of the Plum Street garage, a patrol car of garage security officers drove by her — without even stopping to inquire what she was doing.

The Suicide in Parking Facilities guide can be found here. https://www.parking.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/0416_Suicide_Book_web_final3.pdf.


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