BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – The job of a police negotiator is to find a peaceful ending to a potentially dangerous situation.
It could be someone barricaded inside a residence or business, or a person threatening to commit suicide.
Each situation is different and so are the techniques used by negotiators.
“When you have hostages you might have to make some concessions to get these hostages out. So our approach is different. But the bottom-line, a peaceful resolution. It could take one hour. It could take ten hours,” said Buffalo Police homicide detective John Garcia, commander of the police department’s Crisis Management Team.
Once the police are called in, it’s usually when people are at their worst; desperate, confused and highly emotional.
Garcia says a lot of times people feel as though they’re not being heard. He says that requires time, patience and honesty once a dialogue begins.
“You never know what’s going on in people’s lives,” Garcia said. “When we get there we listen to their story, to their situation, and after a while we can get a better sense of what is going on in that person’s life.”
There’s a bit of psychology involved in being a negotiator, along with the ability to establish trust between the subject and police.
“They can figure out whether or not you’re feeding them a load or not,” said J.D. Byas, a SWAT negotiator with the Dallas Police Department.
Byas, who recently presented at a hostage negotiation conference in Rochester, says domestic situations can be the most volatile and dangerous.
“When you get the momma and papa fight because he found out she was sleeping with somebody or vice versa, well, the fuel is there. He doesn’t need anything from me. He’s got what he wants,” Byas explained.
“We’re going to give it as much time to give our negotiators the opportunity. Where maybe before it was, you got one hour to do it. If you can’t do it in an hour, we’re going in,” he added.
Going tactical, using a SWAT team to make entry, is usually a last resort, according Fairport, New York Police Chief Sam Farina, who serves as president of the New York Association of Hostage Negotiators.
“We never rush. We use time to our advantage. That’s our number one ally, is time,” Farina said.
It could be a gunman with hostages or someone threatening to jump from a bridge.
Farina says negotiators across the nation use the same techniques in an attempt to diffuse a situation without using lethal force.
“We’re more looking for ways to preserve life through any means possible, from a communications, psychological sense,” he added.
He says good negotiators understand the emotions of being human and can empathize with the subject.
Farina says sometimes the tactical side of police work is emphasized “way too much” in the media and in his own field.
“We have a 90 percent success rate on being able to address these particular situations, and be successful with a very good resolution without anybody getting hurt,” Farina explained.
But standoffs are unpredictable and can turn on a dime.
John Garcia was the primary negotiator involving a 2010 incident on Trinity Place in Buffalo.
He was struck in the face and head with pellets from a shotgun blast.
“I was going into it thinking it was going to be a peaceful resolution,” Garcia recalled. “It helps you learn. It makes you stronger.”
With 17 years on the job at that point, the frightening incident did not deter him from pursuing crisis management work with the police department.
These days he oversees a 12 member team of negotiators.
Advances in technology have made the job safer today than it was years ago when a negotiator might be using a bullhorn while taking cover behind a patrol car.
Buffalo Police negotiators are able to sit inside a mobile unit and communicate from a distance. They can also access criminal records and social media to help paint a picture of the person they’re dealing with.
“It’s nice to know if they have a criminal record. They might be afraid to go back to prison,” Garcia said. “If we have that person contained, we could talk to that person all day. We’re willing to stay there until we get a peaceful resolution.”
“We’re in a safe environment, and I’m able to talk calmly instead of yelling, because you don’t sound very friendly when you’re yelling.”
For negotiators like J.D. Byas, it about producing the best possible outcome at the end of the day.
“When someone’s hanging on the side of a bridge and you’re able to get them to come to you, and hug you. It’s a good day. It’s a good day,” he said.