I enjoy trying to talk people down out of situations, people who tend to get escalated and agitated over certain things. I like to try and talk to them to defuse the situation, try to give them the hope and courage to see past and look toward a future. —Carrie Fisher, corrections officer
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."
"I do believe you have to have the ability to establish rapport with people. It's just so important. And we do go through a lot of training to teach specific methods of negotiating, speaking with people. Establishing rapport, introducing ourselves, slowing the situation down, getting people to talk to you, is very much a skill and an art. And it is something that comes within people," he said. "It seems like a risky triggering question, but asking someone if they're really going to hurt themselves is actually a good idea because it opens up dialogue and you get information from that."
Lindsay Oswald, who works at the Salt Lake County Jail, was put through a scenario where he had to get under a building in a tight crawl-space and negotiate in the dark with someone holding a 10-year-old girl hostage.
"It was pretty real time. It was interesting the things we can and can't say," he said.
Oswald believes his experience with the Community Emergency Response Team would help make him a successful crisis negotiator.
"I'm pretty familiar with offender mentality. I know these guys. And I think I understand a lot of the frustrations that they feel and some of the areas they feel like they're being heard in. At least I can relate to that and try and work through that with them," he said.
Jonathan Bushnel, a patrol officer in Taylorsville, believes his experience of talking to people every day on the street gives him the skills he needs to be a negotiator.
"I like talking to people. That's our job. We're service oriented, we're here to help the community," Bushnel said. "So that's part of our job, to get out and talk to people."
Likewise, corrections officer Carrie Fisher at the Salt Lake County Jail said she also enjoys talking to people.
"I enjoy trying to talk people down out of situations, people who tend to get escalated and agitated over certain things," she said. "I like to try and talk to them to defuse the situation, try to give them the hope and courage to see past and look toward a future."
One of the other training scenarios included a man believed to be armed who refused to come out of his house where smoke was pouring out.
In yet another scenario, a candidate was led into a trailer believing they're about to be interviewed for the position when the phone rings. The deputy hands the phone to the candidate, who is soon talking to a suicidal man.
In one exercise, the man asks for a pizza. Campbell said negotiating with suicidal individuals or people holding others hostage is common.
"I'll trade a pizza for a hostage any time," he said.Comment on this story
At the end of this phone call, however, the actor — whom the negotiator cannot see — fires a rifle (loaded with blanks) into the air and hangs up the phone.
"This isn't for everybody. This is a very difficult and tactically risky situation. We're very careful about how we do it. But it will pose the unexpected on these people," Campbell said of the position.
Winder said his negotiators are called out on a regular basis in real life scenarios.
After the training is completed, Campbell said some of the individuals will be invited to participate in the next round of interviews before the department decides who to hire.
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