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In times of standoffs, police crisis negotiators holding the line: Kent officers speak
Derrick Focht has heard it before: A police officer becomes a hostage negotiator because of an ability to chat.
But it’s an ability to listen, he said, that helps a negotiator turn a potential crisis into a safe outcome.
“It’s a misnomer that you get on the phone with a gift of gab and talk,” said Focht, a Kent Police detective and one of three hostage or crisis negotiators for the department. “We do active listening. Otherwise, you get to the point where they say ‘screw you, cop,’ and do not want to talk. We find out what their problems are and what brought about the crisis.”
Kent Police crisis negotiators were called to a city water tower on the East Hill the afternoon of July 7 where a 40-year-old Kent resident made suicidal threats and threatened negotiators after being involved in a domestic-violence incident.
Identified as Mayceo O. Devangari, the man said he was armed with a gun and would shoot anyone who tried to approach him. But after two hours of talking with police negotiators, he climbed down and promised a peaceful surrender.
But when he reached the ground, Devangari reportedly threatened officers again and reached into his pants pocket, where it was believed he had earlier concealed a weapon. Officers fatally shot him, believing there was a threat to themselves as well as to an adjacent day-care facility.
Kent negotiators Focht, Pat Lowery and Paul Peter could not talk about the July 7 incident because the case remains under investigation by the Renton Police. Kent has arrangements with neighboring police departments to conduct investigations when its officers are involved in a shooting.
The three men agreed, however, to a July 14 interview with the Kent Reporter to discuss their roles as negotiators.
They each work other full-time jobs within the department. Focht is a detective, Peter a patrol officer and Lowery a public-information officer. They are trained negotiators and on call 24-7 to respond to cases where someone has threatened thir own life or the lives of others and refuses to surrender.
“Some years we are called every couple of weeks,” said Lowery, one of the original Kent Police crisis negotiators when the duties were added 28 years ago to the department. “But there are months on end when we do not get a single call. I’d say it’s several times a year now. Sometimes the crisis is resolved before we get there.”
The commanding officer at an incident decides whether to call in negotiators.
“Most calls are for someone who is emotionally despondent,” Lowery said. “A hostage situation is rare. Most are a one-on-one, barricaded in a home and have made threats to hurt themselves or take their life. They also could be a threat to the officers who responded if they intervene.”
Kent is actually part of a regional response team includes police crisis negotiators from Auburn, Renton, Tukwila, Federal Way and the Port of Seattle. The departments assist and back each other up.
In fact, the agencies prefer to have at least three or even more negotiators at an incident to take a team approach to resolving the crisis, rather than one person trying to do all of the work.
While one person talks to the subject, others assist with listening to the conversation to help provide tips to end the crisis peacefully. Negotiators also try to talk to family members or friends of the person to find out details that could help lead to a peaceful resolution.
In one case, negotiators found out from a relative that a man had pet rats, so they started to talk to him about his rats and eventually persuaded him to give up.
“You look for hooks to calm down a person,” said Focht, in his 14th year with the Kent Police and 10th year as a negotiator. “You want to find out all you can about a person and what makes them tick.”
Although negotiations are often by cell phone, the police still use a special communications box that they deliver to the person in order to talk directly. They also at times talk or shout through doors or down hallways.
“The goal is to get discussion started as soon as you can,” Lowery said. “We want to establish communication as quickly as possible to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible. We try to build a relationship and understand what brought them to this point.
“We ask a lot of open-ended questions and talk as little as we can. We want to get them rolling and tell us what’s going on so we can find a safe resolution.”
The negotiators have had people give up in a few minutes while others kept talking for hours.
“The most difficult thing for some of them to do is surrender because you feel you let yourself down,” Lowery said. “We tell them the safe way is to surrender and we want them to peacefully surrender themselves.”
The officers try to explain to the person exactly what steps must be taken to end the crisis and that when they open the door after being barricade inside with a gun, they will face a lot of armed officers, be handcuffed and arrested.
“We don’t make up stories or lie to people,” Focht said. “We lay out how it goes. If they are in a mental health crisis, we are going to see them again. So if we lie, they would not trust us and we may deal with them again. We are pretty straight up with the realities of what will happen.”
But that also can make it difficult to persuade someone to walk out of a house or down from a water tower.
“When you walk through that door you are going to see 18 guys with guns and that makes you not want to walk through,” Focht said.
That’s where the persuasive skills of the officers come in handy.
Peter worked six years as a real estate agent in Kent. Now in his 28th year as a Kent officer and eighth year as a negotiator, he discovered the skills he used as a real estate agent are valuable as a negotiator as well.
“There are a lot of similarities to being able to deal with people on a personable level and to persuade people,” said Peter, who also has a college degree in psychology. “With what you do in sales, a lot of the tendencies are the same.”
Lowery started as a volunteer negotiator and learned on the job. Now officers are interviewed by a committee of negotiators from Kent and other agencies before they are selected for the job.
“We use role play exercises and have them negotiate with a subject to see how they deal with stress and the tools they bring to the table,” Lowery said.
The officers then attend 40 hours of instruction from the Washington State Criminal Justice Commission in Burien and the FBI. Each year they train with the regional unit and attend Pacific Northwest conferences hosted by the Western State Hostage Negotiators’ Association to discuss recent incidents and learn about new trends.
Although called negotiators, Lowery said it really isn’t a negotiation when they deal with an individual.
“We have parameters to stay within,” Lowery said. “They must surrender and not get anything from us. We can not give up their charges. The challenge is to get people to buy into this. At times it’s easy but others want it their way or no way.
“We get asked from anything from cars or helicopters so they can escape or they ask for a cigarette. A cigarette we can do. A car will not happen.”
After an incident, the negotiators must learn to leave whatever the outcome was behind them. They have debriefing meetings to discuss what could have been done differently, but then move on.
“We get 97 to 98 percent successfully resolved where we do not need a SWAT team intervention in a criminal situation,” Lowery said.
But the work can be tiring even with an outcome that ends peacefully.
“I realize after I’m done that I’m exhausted like I had just run a marathon and my brain hurts,” Lowery said. “There is a sense of letdown if you do not get a person out and you have to go to the tactical unit. But there is a point when you realize you cannot get it resolved by talking.”
Several years ago Lowery had a case at a Kent motel where a man had barricaded himself inside and refused to give up. Lowery said he had to finally tell the commanding officer that he could not get the man to surrender.
“The SWAT team got him with no shots fired, but it was very tense to get him out of that room,” Lowery said.
Lowery used to struggle and rehash whether he should have done or said something different to change a bad outcome.
“But you can’t, you must stop that,” Lowery said. “It’s OK to ask what if but then this is the reality of it. I haven’t had a lot of those situations and I’m confident that the work all of us have done we gave it everything we got.”