On a cold and sunny April day in Wabasca, Alta., Cst. Jeremy Bowler sat cross-legged in a lawn chair in the middle of a blocked-off highway. Through a pair of headphones equipped with a microphone, the Red Deer detachment member listened to a man speak about hockey, hunting and the nicknames he's had over the years. But, just a few hours earlier, that man held eight hostages in his home and fired his weapon several times.
Bowler is a trained crisis negotiator. As part of Alberta's Emergency Response Team (ERT), he gets called to situations that require someone with exceptional active listening skills and training in talking people out of harming themselves or others.
During this particular incident on April 4, 2013, an intoxicated man arrived home, grabbed his rifle and barricaded all the occupants inside – three adults and five children under the age of five. After he fired several rounds at a parked car, Bowler and his team were called in to help.
By the time they arrived, general duty and ERT members had safely removed the hostages from the house. Bowler began assembling a throw phone – a portable phone the team can build and deliver to a house – to start talking to the man who had locked himself inside.
"Once he got the phone, I was able to engage him in a conversation to see what was going on and what was keeping him from coming out," Bowler says.
Bowler sat himself in the middle of the highway on the lawn chair, away from the rest of the team that was dealing with the logistics of the operation, so he could focus on simply having a conversation with the distressed man.
"I explored the emotions he was putting out," Bowler says. "Was he scared? Was he nervous? Was he embarrassed? We don't necessarily work to resolve the situation right away, but we work to establish a rapport and get him to a point where he's willing to agree to do what we're asking him to do."
It didn't take long before Bowler convinced the man to hand over every bullet from his rifle, except one. That, combined with the suicidal comments he was making, gave Bowler clues about what to do next.
"At that point, my opinion was that he had a story and he wanted people to listen to it, which fits in with our model of asking people to tell us their stories," Bowler says. "When we're negotiating like that, it's not so much about anything. We talk about hockey, sports, hunting and eating moose. He was kind of a passive kind of guy and I believe he just wanted somebody to listen to him."
Bowler says that, as soon as a subject starts talking with a negotiator, it's a good indicator that he or she wants to continue. So, for the two-and-a-half hours he sat in that chair, Bowler focused on being engaged in that conversation.
"You may not be expressing your actual opinions or anything but you have to actually be listening to what they're saying and responding because they'll key in on that," Bowler says. "If you're not listening or if you have inappropriate responses to things they've said, that could basically throw away any rapport you've developed and you really need that."
In the end, the team was successful. The subject left his rifle in the house and peacefully surrendered to the ERT. And, for Bowler, all it took was a bit of patience and an open ear.
"It's the same concept that's involved in source handling, which is a big part of my day-to-day job," Bowler says. "That relies on the client realizing that you have an interest in what's going on. They want to do something for someone they like, and you need to be that person who gets along with them."
A familiar voice
Sgt. Gary Hodges' call started in a similar way on Nov. 27, 2011. As Hodges, a trained RCMP crisis negotiator in Regina, travelled two hours east with Saskatchewan's critical incident response team to Cowessess First Nation, the suspect had already fired his weapon twice.
The man had been in a car accident and, when the local fire department responded to put out the fire that started in his vehicle, he shot at them. The man then took off to his house and locked himself inside.
When the team arrived, members set up a negotiation pod and immediately started talking to the suspect. Hodges opened with the fact that he and his team had come from far away to help – a tactic he often uses to build trust and rapport.
"I say, 'I'm an RCMP member, but I travelled all the way from Regina because I'm concerned about you and I want to help you out. I'm not one of the local detachment members that you might have had a bad dealing with in the past,' " Hodges says.
But the suspect didn't want to surrender. "In this case, I think he wanted to save face," Hodges says.
Earlier on in the conversation, the team found out that the suspect had a good relationship with his parents and sister, so they were brought in as third-party intermediaries.
"In some instances, those are family members or friends of the suspect and we give them a scripted conversation to help them talk to the person to convince them that we're being honest and truthful and nothing's going to happen if they come out," Hodges says.
The man's father was selected to go first. But the conversation quickly turned into a one-sided lecture, which is the type of conversation that Hodges wanted to avoid. The man's sister tried talking to him next, and Hodges says she worked wonders.
"She was able to convince him that she would be there, we would allow him to talk to her if he surrendered to the police, and he wouldn't get hurt," Hodges says.
Eventually, the suspect agreed to surrender to his father and an RCMP member. And part of the success stemmed from the fact that negotiators worked hard to develop a good rapport with the suspect by telling the truth.
"The biggest thing when we're negotiating is to follow two rules: never make a promise you can't keep and never tell a lie," Hodges says. "If you break one of those two rules, you'll never develop any kind of trust or rapport with them again."
Finding the spark
Cst. Jill Swann wasn't sure how the situation would unfold. She arrived at a boat launch in Cumberland, B.C., and saw a man sitting in his vehicle with a high-powered rifle. His son was standing beside the driver's window. First responders told Swann and her primary negotiator, Cst. Tammy Douglas, that the 60-year-old suspect was highly motivated to end his life.
As Swann and her team were being briefed on the situation, the man grabbed a blanket from his back seat and draped it over himself and his rifle in an attempt to shield his son from what he was about to do. At that point, a general duty member who had already established contact with the father, instructed the son to bang on the window to let his father know that he could still see him and hear him.
"There's a spark of life and self-preservation in the back of people's brains and, in my experience, if that spark is still there and if they're still alive by the time I get there, there's a chance we can help," Swann says.
It worked, and the man lowered the rifle. Douglas then used a cellphone to call the son and asked if she could speak to his father. When the father took the phone, she explained to him that she could hear his words, his painful voice and his struggle.
"Tammy has such a beautiful nature about her and a genuine, caring personality that just transcends through her voice," Swann says.
The team had done some background research to know why the man had barricaded himself inside his vehicle: his marriage was ending, his business was failing and his health was deteriorating.
"These are all bricks that pile up and they just want the pain to stop," Swann says. "They see suicide as the only option to stop that pain, so you have to ask them to give us a chance to show them there's help out there."
Eventually, the man surrendered his weapon to his son and stepped out of the vehicle unharmed.
Each negotiator agrees that the best tool in any situation is active listening.
"Active listening allows you to repeat things they're saying so they know you're listening to them," Hodges says. "They'll then start to realize that you do care and you're genuinely concerned, and then they'll start to communicate. Then you can work towards figuring out what the problem is and how to resolve it."
It's also about convincing the suspect that he or she needs the negotiator to get what they want.
"From an officer safety perspective, you can't let the person take control of the scene, but you can present an appearance that you are giving them a certain amount of control while not giving up that control," Hodges says.
Most negotiators take a crisis negotiation course in their careers and learn some of these tactics in the field. But, in the end, they agree that basic training, compassion and human instinct is the basis of crisis negotiation.
"What we do as negotiators isn't magic," Hodges says. "All we're doing is talking to people, and police officers do that every day. They're not doing anything different, just using some special techniques, developing rapport and listening actively."
Crisis intervention and de-escalation training
After the Robert Dziekanski incident in 2007, it was recognized that police needed more education and training about mental illness and how to manage people in crisis.
Since January 2012, RCMP members in British Columbia (B.C.) have been taking the Pacific Region Training Centre's (PRTC) mandatory crisis intervention and de-escalation (CID) training within the first six months of becoming operational.
The training includes five online modules and is followed by an in-class review and practice session at the PRTC in Chilliwack.
"A lot of the work is done by members on their own, going through the modules online and completing an online exam, and once they're done that, they come to the PRTC for one of the CID classes," says Cst. Rodney Wagner, a former psychiatric nurse who teaches the course.
Wagner focuses on teaching his students about mental illness and how to effectively respond to someone in crisis. He recognizes that many police officers are already using good communication skills and encourages them to fine tune these skills and practise them where possible.
"Sometimes, police officers get very task-oriented and problem-oriented in these situations and try to fix the problem, so I try to get them to slow down," Wagner says. "It's hard to take the time to listen to someone when you think you know what the answer's going to be, so it's a skill they have to learn."
He teaches participants how to recognize someone who is suicidal and how to be an active and respectful listener.
All front-line police officers and supervisors in B.C. are required to take CID training because the province is focused on having all front-line members ready to respond to these types of calls.
"You never know when you're going to be that person," Wagner says. "You could be an inspector who shows up at an accident scene or a constable at any other scene and need to apply these techniques to calm things down."
– Mallory Procunier