Special police unit trained to deal with difficult situations

By Katherine Wartell

A peaceful resolution is always the goal of the three Riley County police officers who comprise a special team trained to handle negotiations with uncooperative suspects.

Their goal is to establish a trusting rapport with men and women who have barricaded themselves from authorities for fear of arrest, those who have locked themselves alone with a weapon, threatening to commit suicide or in a worst-case scenario, those who have taken hostages.

Lt. Stephen Boyda, Det. Sonia Gregoire and Sgt. Brian London make up the Emergency Response Unit Negotiations Team. They are most often used to communicate with suicidal people who have barricaded themselves, but they have undergone weeks-long training to deal with hostage situations. They also assist in the execution of high-risk search warrants.

The team works in conjunction with the Emergency Response Unit Tactical team led by Lt. Greg Steere. Although members of the negotiation team communicate with the subject through means of a public address system or phone, it is the tactical team that will make entry.

The team was most recently deployed Monday in regards to a suicidal man who had locked himself in his estranged wife’s apartment with a firearm.

After a roughly four-hour standoff during which the man refused to communicate, members of the tactical team introduced tear gas into the apartment, a tactic, Capt. Kurt Moldrup said, that is used to cause discomfort to the subject and encourage them to come outside.

Gregoire, who has been on the team for about three years, said that in these situations, where a suicidal subject is alone, the team’s most important goal is to get the subject psychological help.

But not long after members introduced the gas, a gunshot was heard. The tactical team then waited for approximately 45 minutes to an hour to make entry.

Boyda, who has been on the team for about 7 years, said the waiting period reflects the department’s safety priority list. At the top is the victim and innocent bystanders, followed by police officers and then the suspect at the bottom.

He said officers can’t know if the gunshot was self-inflicted, fired toward police officers or fired in the hope that officers will rush into the apartment.

During training for the Emergency Response Unit, officers are taught that suicide by cop is a real possibility, Boyda said. In that instance, a suicidal subject could force an officer’s hand by leveling his or her weapon at the officer with the intention that the officer shoot and kill them.

Team members are also taught that if the subject did shoot themselves, it was most likely lethal.

Because multiple members of the tactical team would make entry into the apartment, Boyda said care is taken so that four or five people are not jeopardized for the sake of one person, though ideally, no one would end up hurt. 

For members of the negotiations team, forcing an issue with a suicidal subject is the last thing they want to do, he said, so they try not to rush communication.

But Gregoire said one of the biggest challenges is when subjects don’t want to talk. “It leaves you stuck,” she said.

Boyda said establishing a trusting, but professional rapport can be challenging as well.

Though the situation varies in each instance, Boyda said that once the negotiations team is deployed, its first step is to glean all that it can about the subject and the situation: Is the subject suicidal, is it a domestic case or a criminal evading arrest, and are there hostages?

He said members try to figure out why the person is not cooperating and what weapons he or she may have. During this time, a safety area is established and bystanders are evacuated.

An attempt at communication, often through telephone or the PA system if the person is known to have a weapon, is made, and Boyda said, members listen for button topics, those that the negotiator should stay away from or those that they should pursue to create a rapport.

“We never lie to them,” Boyda said, saying they will not tell a criminal that he or she will not be arrested if he or she comes out.

When they are dealing with a hostage situation, he said the communication is more geared toward making the victims as safe as possible and communicating that it is in the suspect’s best interest to let them go.

Suicidal subjects can be extremely hard, he said, because you don’t know their mental state and there’s a chance they are under the influence, making them harder to deal with than if they were sober.

He said that when a person has made up his or her mind to kill themselves, it’s hard to change it.

The team has been deployed roughly eight to 10 times per year for the last two years, Boyda said, but, he said, the team is starting to be used more and more.

He said that in the past 10 years, the Emergency Response Unit has become more focused and formal, and the negotiations team has benefitted from improved electronic communications equipment.

The team also benefits from relations with the Kansas Highway Patrol and Kansas Bureau of Investigations hostage-negotiations teams and contact with Fort Riley, particular for help in dealing with soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, Boyda said.

Gregoire said the team has been able to talk a lot of people out of bad situations, but Gregoire and Boyda share those times when they wonder if things could have been different and outcomes changed.

In one instance, a subject communicated with team members for several hours in a negotiation that lasted from midnight to roughly 8 a.m. Boyda said they were able to take a positive direction, but still, the negotiation ended when the man killed himself.

“You spend a lot of time thinking what you could’ve done differently,” he said, adding the team always debriefs after each incident to discuss the decisions that were made and whether the outcome could have been different.

“It weighs on the officers’ minds,” he said.

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