Every day throughout the world, law enforcement officers respond to untold numbers of calls for service. These calls have the potential to become a barricade or crisis situation. For the past 20 years or so, we have attempted to provide first responding officers with information and tools to initiate negotiations in an effort to quickly resolve the crisis or to maintain the situation until specially trained negotiators arrive.
In fact, it has become more or less an accepted practice to provide an abbreviated, 40-hour basic crisis negotiation class in a four-hour block of instruction titled "Negotiations for First Responders."
In doing so, we have violated one of the first rules of training. We have set the stage for our students to fail. It is totally unreasonable to believe that students will comprehend and/or retain any of the tools, skills or techniques force-fed to them as we sweep through the basic negotiation course at 10 times the intended speed.
Active listening skills alone are difficult for many officers to comprehend and are generally best accomplished through individual participation with immediate feedback from instructors and peers. When accomplished, they are certainly a perishable skill if not regularly used, practiced and critiqued by others.
Students who are overwhelmed with the material and fail to comprehend how it directly benefits them will simply dismiss that information as useless and a waste of time. With these issues in mind, it is time that we begin to change our paradigm in what we want these first line officers to do when they arrive at the crisis site.
Furthermore, we need to identify the necessary tools for them to accomplish this vision. Like other tools and skills we provide our officers, negotiation skills must be presented in a manner that encourages the student to apply their own personal strengths and experiences to achieve success in skill attainment. At the same time, we must bolster their confidence in the knowledge that negotiation is simply an extension of those communication skills they employ daily.
Whether it begins as a known barricaded and armed person threatening suicide, a door slammed closed as officers approach a domestic disturbance, or the tactical team finding themselves facing an unplanned barricade after making an entry, the initial reaction is generally the same: "Oh crap, what should we do now?"
Crisis negotiations conducted by first responders, tactical operators, or seasoned negotiators will (no matter how abbreviated or extended) consist of three primary components or phases: 1) the initial response or introduction phase; 2) the mitigation or bargaining phase; and 3) the resolution or surrender phase. There is no predetermined length of time appropriate for any of these phases. They are as independent and unique as each crisis situation encountered. The Initial Response
Historically, we have trained first responders to either hold their ground, i.e., physically contain the area and wait for the negotiation team, or attempt to initiate contact and work toward a successful resolution. In fact, we should begin to initiate contact as soon as possible in an effort to begin the very important task of verbal containment of the person in crisis. Verbal containment encompasses the components of assessing the person's emotional state, initiating the rapport building necessary to continue the process, and intelligence gathering.
While it may be tempting to stall initiating contact until more intelligence is gathered, the earlier contact is established, the greater amount of intelligence can be gathered. Intelligence generally falls into the categories of 'Who', 'What', 'When', 'Where' and 'How' but not 'Why.' 'Why' will usually be learned as the communication continues and is often considered as a challenge to the behavior.
Learning who is involved and if anyone is injured or needs specialized assistance; what types of weapons they may have or threats they are making; when the crisis began; where the person in crisis is located as well as if other are involved; where they are being held; and, finally, how did it get to this particular crisis level are basic intelligence gathering areas to consider. After ensuring the officers' personal safety (tactical soundness), one of the most important things to remember is that you are dealing with a person in crisis, an emotionally disturbed person (EDP).
While they may not be an EDP as we might traditionally think of one, we nevertheless must treat them as we might a traditional EDP. They will be varied in their responses, or lack thereof. In addition, they are going to be unrealistic in their thought patterns and may have great difficulty communicating clear thoughts or making clear sense of what they are communicating. People deal with crisis in their own way, and throughout their lives they have adapted to the stresses and emotional changes to maintain a semi-even personality.
As stressors and strong emotional occurrences impact us, we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed. These radical emotional shifts to extremes often control the person in crisis. Like a child's teeter-totter, when emotions rise, logical thought declines. As emotions start to decline, logical thought rises to a more balanced level.
Unlike a teeter-totter, the side that is in the air has more control over balance than the side low to the ground. This illustrates that when emotions are high, the chances of illogical or irrational behavior become more likely. As balance and control return, logical thought patterns return and greater progress is generally accomplished.
When initial contact is made with the person in crisis, the officer should introduce himself / herself along with his / her association with law enforcement. It is certainly not a secret that they are a police officer, and they are setting a stage of honesty in their communications. As previously mentioned, everyone involved (including the officer) will be emotionally charged.
The first responder should have someone with them, not to act as a coach who a primary negotiator might utilize, but as a support mechanism to help reduce some of the emotionality they are feeling and to ensure tactical safety measures are employed. If the officer presents a sense of calm and control, it may help the person in crisis to lower their emotional state in like fashion.
Despite the sense of calm displayed by the negotiator, the person in crisis may be unable to maintain any sense of control over their emotions and may express extreme outbursts, making radical threats and attempting to challenge the negotiator to verbal combat. The negotiator should remain calm, non-confrontational, and certainly not accept the invitation to the argument. Bargaining or Mitigation Phase
In this phase, a certain degree of rapport and trust has been formed between the negotiator and the person in crisis. This phase can be boiled down to two things: You want them to come out and they want you to go away. Both of you know the latter option is most likely never going to happen, so you must work with the person in crisis to minimize the perceived negative implications of them "coming out."
Again, honesty in telling them we cannot just leave helps to reinforce the reality of what they know but do not want to admit. Without getting ahead of ourselves and moving straight to the third phase, resolution or surrender, we must consider the second phase begins the process of creating many of the face-saving aspects of the third phase. As the negotiation continues, we should remember the person with whom we are negotiating is probably a "normal" person suffering from an intense, emotionally charged crisis state.
In a recent LAW and ORDER
Magazine article published in June 2010, "Emergency Responses and the Mentally Ill," author Kelly Sharp noted, "According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 percent of Americans age 18 and older have some kind of mental disorder in any given year, with 6 percent suffering from a serious mental illness...for officers, this means one in 17 people they contact may be mentally ill." I recommend this article for any law enforcement officer, especially crisis negotiators. (www.hendonpub.com
, Resources, Article Archives)
Whether mentally ill or emotionally overwhelmed, at no time should the person with whom we are negotiating be treated as "crazy," "less than intelligent," disrespected, or their issues minimized. In agreement with Sharp, I also believe it is unfair to ask officers to become "sidewalk psychologists." Conversely, I believe most law enforcement officers can learn the skills necessary to communicate with and develop rapport with most EDPs or mentally ill people through compassion and a willingness to accept others for who they are.
Seldom are first responders concerned with areas in which to stay clear, such as "word bullets," or using specific terms to minimize the importance of certain things, such as not referring to persons held against their will as "hostages," or discussing power and control issues a trained negotiator might employ. Additionally, seldom will first responders be confronted with any substantive demands other than, "Go away and leave me alone."
As previously mentioned, it is important not to dismiss a demand; it is imperative they are acknowledged. First responders should calmly but confidently reassure the person in crisis he / she is not going to be able to just leave, but rather they want to help ensure everyone involved in the situation is well. As rapport is built and emotionality is reduced to a more manageable level, officers should begin to prepare for transition to the final phase, resolution or surrender. Resolution or Surrender Phase
Generally, I have advocated for simplicity in communication skills for first responders, leaving the complex, psychological "game-play" for experienced crisis negotiators. However, as we enter the third phase of the process, some admonishments must be applied. As the rapport develops between parties and a resolution is considered, the concepts of face saving must be considered by the officers.
All of the progress and rapport developed to that point can be lost by saying something along the lines of; "Why don't you go ahead and give up," or encouraging them to "go ahead and surrender." The psychological impact this can have is devastating to the person's already fragile self-esteem. Using verbiage such as "When you come out," or "Will you come out and meet me?" removes the stigma of that person is a failure, or he she is giving up instead of assuming some control and participating in the process.
The process by which you want him / her to come out should be planned as early in the process as possible, in anticipation of the person suddenly coming out without any warning. Be mindful this is the second most highly emotionally charged time during the negotiation. The person may change his / her mind several times before acquiescing to your requests to "come out." When he she does emerge from the barricaded location, he / she may be looking for a reason to vilify you as the source of his / her problems.
By continuing to maintain honesty and adhering to any agreements or promises to ensure that person's safety, you will mitigate his / her vilification and continue to build rapport in the possible event you are faced with negotiating with this person again. More importantly, you will comply with rule # 1: going home safely at the end of your shift, with a sense of accomplishment and self respect for surviving a difficult task and making a difference in the lives of those we swore to protect.