Sep 25, 2002
DURHAM - Holed up with a loaded handgun in a Whitby townhouse surrounded by tactical officers, former star football quarterback Thomas Powell was facing "fourth and goal."
After kidnapping and raping his ex-girlfriend, who managed to escape after a four-hour ordeal, the 42-year-old ex-jock dialled 911 and demanded the police go away. Under the influence of an all-night drug and alcohol binge, Mr. Powell was threatening to turn the gun on himself when a Durham Regional Police crisis negotiator took over the conversation from the 911 operator.
"Hi, I'm Tom. I'm a police officer," began the calm voice at the end of the line.
With scores of heavily armed highly trained snipers standing at the ready outside, the pair talked for hours about family, friends and sports. Patience is the key weapon for the police negotiator.
"Time is one of the tools used to reduce the stress level of a suspect. The key is to bring the person down to a rational state. If he's on drugs or alcohol, time will assist in bringing him down so that we can have a safe surrender," Detective Tom Hart, the Durham police crisis negotiator, explains.
"From the moment police get there the suspect is under arrest. He just doesn't realize it yet," says Det. Hart.
While Det. Hart continued to chat with Mr. Powell about various subjects, secondary negotiator Detective Stew Giffin worked behind the scenes digging up crucial background information on their suspect. Mr. Powell's past as a local football standout and previous failed tryout with the Toronto Argonauts would turn out to be crucial to his safe surrender.
"I had to get him off the topic of his ex-girlfriend, he was upset, jealous and angry. He wanted her brought back to the apartment. He wanted to kill her, which of course wasn't going to happen," says Det. Hart.
Mr. Powell's anxiety level dropped when the talk turned to football.
"I knew he played football and that redirected him from the focus on killing himself or girlfriend. We talked a lot about football, about the Argos, he was a huge Argos fan, and joked about the Hamilton Ticats, their rivals.
"He just wanted to talk about football and his job. He was afraid he'd lose his job. I had to be honest with him... he'd be going to jail," Det. Hart said.
Det. Hart used "a lot of football references" during the three-hour standoff. "We built a rapport. That brought his anger level down," he said.
He eventually convinced Mr. Powell that it was game over, using the football analogy that it was "fourth and goal," and no time left on the clock.
Mr. Powell, now serving a nine-year prison sentence, emerged from the residence and surrendered peacefully.
As the most senior of eight Durham police negotiators, Det. Hart says the key to restoring calm in any crisis is finding out what makes a person tick while tiptoeing around potential "triggers" that could send them over the edge.
"Being a good listener is important... finding key aspects of their lives that you can take and build on," Det. Hart says.
The force has four "critical incident" teams each comprised of three specially trained negotiators, an incident commander, technical support officer and tactical unit leader.
The teams, which rotate on 24-hour call, respond to situations involving hostage-taking, the emotionally disturbed or suicidal and barricaded persons.
"Every call is as unique as the individual. They range from the desperate to the delusional," said Det. Hart, a veteran of 45 negotiations over the past 11 years, all ending peacefully.
The subjects share a common trait in that they are looking for a way out of a stressful situation - and it's the negotiator's role to give them one.
On a philosophical level, says Det. Hart: "They all want a million dollars and our job as a team is to get them down to a Big Mac and fries."
Of the 13 crisis calls Durham police have been called to in the first six months of this year, nine involved barricaded people, four stemmed from domestic situations and six involved weapons ranging from knives, a shotgun, handgun and shard of glass. Unlike Hollywood police dramas, the hostage standoff with sensational suspect demands, such as millions of dollars and a fuelled jet, is rare. In reality, requests by cornered or distraught suspects are more modest.
Such as the 75-year-old man who, after shooting his estranged companion in the chest with a rifle, held police at bay outside his Oshawa home for hours.
"He invited me in for a drink. He wouldn't surrender until I came inside the residence to have a glass of vodka," recalls Det. Hart, who declined. "There are certain ground rules you just can't break."
The standoff ended safely when police detonated a distraction device and tactical officers rushed the elderly man on the porch, safely disarming him.
Or the despondent man perched on the roof of an Oshawa parking garage, threatening to jump.
"He was literally standing with his toes over the edge. He ran out of cigarettes and wanted a smoke," recounts 16 Division Inspector Tom Cameron, former negotiator and now a critical incident commander.
A cigarette was placed on the roof near the man. As time dragged on he asked for another. This time, when he reached for the cigarette, Insp. Cameron grabbed the man's wrist while two tactical support officers leaped from a nearby hiding spot and pulled him to safety, a strategy known as "snatching."
At most, negotiators may provide food and nicotine. But, in spite of their title, there's little or no room for negotiation with criminals who won't surrender, especially when barricaded suspects have little bargaining power.
"Obviously it depends on the circumstances. We may send in food, but anything you give them is exchanged for a concession, a step toward their surrender. In most cases we're not giving them anything, we're taking things away," says Insp. Cameron, adding police have resorted to shutting off heat or hydro to flush out suspects.
In cases involving the emotionally disturbed or distraught, negotiators often rely on advice from family doctors or world-renowned OPP forensic psychiatrist Dr. Peter Collins, who is on call around-the-clock to police. Chances are someone intent on murder or suicide will have completed the act prior to police arriving.
"The psychology is believing the subject wants to give himself up and it's up to the negotiator to maintain a positive outlook. Often people who are despairing believe nobody cares about them or what happens. We try to point out that fallacy. We do care," says Insp. Cameron.
One way is to convince the person things could be much worse. Insp. Cameron pointed out to one man threatening to jump from a roof that it was possible he wouldn't be killed, but could be paralysed for life.
"Rather than be dead he could've ended up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and be in worse misery than what he was experiencing," he says.
Other times, suicidal plans are made in haste and by the time the person has changed his mind things have spiralled out of control. Police have surrounded him, a crowd of spectators has gathered and it seems like there's no way out.
Like the Pickering man who came home to learn his wife had been unfaithful. He began drinking and snapped, grabbing his hunting rifles.
"The wife took the two kids from the home. This was a typical hard-working, taxpaying guy under incredible pressure," says Det. Hart.
"He was having problems at work and home... It was a question of making him realize suicide is a permanent solution to a short-term problem. We talked a lot about his family and children... It was really an overreaction on his part," he says, of the man who peacefully surrendered.
Police guidelines in crisis negotiation Dos
• speak slowly, clearly, calmly
• speak to the suspect as an equal, don't talk down to them
• make subject feel important
• use non-judgmental language
• listen carefully, be patient and consistent
• carefully plan a surrender
• ask about suicide plan
• be as honest as possible
• play down the past
• make promises you can't keep
• interrupt while the suspect is releasing anger
• give orders
• give anything away without getting something in return
• impose or accept deadlines
• put the suspect down
• say flat 'No'
• never trivialize a request but don't supply drugs or alcohol
Source: Found at Durham Regional Police