Officers audition for stressful life-or-death positions with Unified Police Department

Published: Wednesday, May 29 2013 2:50 p.m. MDT

Officer Carrie Fisher negotiates during a scenario where a man has kidnapped a child during the Unified Police Department's tryouts to select new members for its Crisis Negotiation Team in Magna on Wednesday, May 29, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

MAGNA — They are the people who talk others off the ledge — literally.

They also talk people into putting their weapons down, releasing the people being held hostage (sometimes children), come out of a burning house or out from underneath a tight crawl space, and end a tense standoff situation peacefully so that nobody is hurt, including the person causing the standoff.

Hostage/crisis negotiators are an essential part of any law enforcement unit. That includes the Unified Police Department.

"They save lives," said Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder. "They save lives and they reduce the tragic outcomes on a regular basis. Ninety-nine percent of the situations we deal with can be resolved through communication, not through tactical resolution. And I think that's what people need to understand is that SWAT is about saving lives, not about hurting and harming people."

On Wednesday, 11 candidates hoping to become a crisis negotiator were put through a series of live training scenarios to see how they might handle a real-life situation.

The group, which consisted of everyone from patrol officers, corrections officers, emergency dispatchers and even civilian employees, were immediately thrown into high-tension scenarios with a "bang."

After being led into the Unified Fire Authority's training facility, 3950 S. 8000 West, three officers hiding behind a wall threw three "flash-bang" devices in the general direction of the group, creating three large "booms."

The candidates were ordered to immediately put on their tactical gear — including helmets and bullet-proof vests — and the teams were led to several waiting scenarios.

"You need a sense of urgency," a Unified firefighter ordered several of the candidates as they put on rappelling harnesses for one of the training events. "Do exactly what I say."

In one scenario, a woman dangled her infant child (a doll) over a fourth-story ledge and threatened to jump with the baby. All the while, she fought with her husband who stood behind her. The crisis negotiator candidates were brought up to the fifth floor, one-by-one, hooked to rope, and told they couldn't move from a small 2x2-foot area.

"There's a misconception sometimes that a negotiator is back in the rear with the gear, safely in the command post talking on the phone. But where they may very well be is up on the ledge or up on the overpass talking to that jumper, or in a smoke-filled or flame-filled environment holding a hostage," said Unified Police Sgt. Don Campbell, who helped oversee the training.

"If I'm going, I want the baby to go with me," the actress playing the suicidal mother yells at the negotiator.

"I just want to help you find the best solution," the candidate calls back to her.

The argument continues to go in circles for several minutes.

The second candidate, a woman, however, is able to quickly get the woman to hand off the baby to the father, getting the infant out of danger.

Crisis negotiation is about life and death, Campbell said. Successful candidates, he said, will many times be the ones who are already a "people person."

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