Once a month, an elite police force meets on the bottom floor of the Bend Police Department headquarters. They have a particular set of skills — skills many of them have acquired over long careers.
“Tell me more about that,” Bend officer Chris Stoaks asks a fellow officer during a role-playing exercise. “How long have you been into books.”
While other police training focuses on assertiveness, verbal commands and marksmanship and other “harder” skills, negotiators with the multi-agency Central Oregon Emergency Response Team regularly hone their active listening and conflict de-escalation skills.
It turns out listening is a pretty effective way to keep the peace.
“The truth of the matter is, the majority of our high-risk calls are resolved through the negotiations group,” said Lt. Brian Beekman, who oversees the emergency response team. “Communication is what they do, and they’re really good at it.”
On nearly 40 occasions last year, a call to law enforcement in Central Oregon resulted in a person barricaded in a property and refusing to come out.
Many times, they were armed or threatening to hurt themselves or others. Often, intoxicating substances were involved, and quite often, mental illness was at play.
The emergency response team is divided into two groups — operations and negotiations. Operations refers to the classic SWAT team — cops in riot gear yelling “POLICE” and kicking in doors.
In 21 of the 38 emergency response team deployments in 2018, a contingent of negotiators was brought in. The 10 or so officers involved have received the additional training to handle contact with people in distress.
Often, these people are desperate. Often, they’ve just committed a serious crime.
The negotiators typically have one goal in mind: getting the subject to surrender peacefully, and there isn’t much the negotiators can offer on their end. What they try to do is calm a person in a highly emotional state into someone who can make the sensible choice to give up and come outside.
The best way to do this is by listening, Stoaks said.
“This isn’t tricks,” Stoaks said. “This is an honest attempt. And it does no good to focus on the crime itself. That’s not what this is about.”
Often, there isn’t much the negotiators could do if they wanted. The subjects have a “multitude of problems” that have built up over many years, said Bend Police officer Kecia Weaver, head of the negotiators.
“Are we there to solve problems? No. We’re there to listen,” Weaver said. “We have an objective, which is a successful, peaceful resolution. But we’re not going to solve the world’s problems.”
Bend Det. Jake Chandler was reminded of this on a recent call. He started to “problem-solve” with a female subject, but she wasn’t having it.
“I feel sorry for your wife,” she snapped at him. “She must be so sick of you.”
Chandler had to course-correct and do damage control before he could move on.
It was great feedback from the “client,” Weaver said, a reminder of the value of active listening.
This month’s training began with an active listening exercise. The officers sat back-to-back. Weaver asked one team member to question the other about their “fondest memory from middle school.”
The goal is to keep the other person talking. It’s not as easy as one might think.
Redmond Police Det. Tyler Kirk was questioned about a good friend he met in middle school. They started as reserves together, in high school, and their respective paths had taken to different states, he told Stoaks.
“How did your families get along growing up?” Stoaks asked him at one point.
Kirk looked up at the ceiling like he hadn’t considered the question in a long time.
They complete practice drills to stay sharp between calls.
“You do get rusty,” said Sunriver Police Lt. Mike Womer.
When local SWAT operations began in the 1990s, they would try to get a “throw phone” to a barricaded subject. They still have that old phone, but much more often they use a standard cell phone.
The rise of mobile technology and social media has led to changes in police negotiations. Texting is common — some subjects even request it. One officer recently received an emoji in a text message and wasn’t sure whether to send one back.
Unlike their flashier counterparts on the operations side, who ride in armored military-style personnel carrier, the negotiators have a basic, utilitarian van they take to calls. There are occasional “brother and sister fights” over who’s been eating what in the van, according to Weaver.
Stoaks was bitten by the bug as a rookie riding along with Dan Ritchie, Bend Police’s longtime top negotiator.
Ritchie would tell him stories from the old days, when they’d fry bacon outside the door to encourage barricaded subjects to come out.
Stoaks would watch Ritchie’s interactions with unruly or volatile subjects, waiting for “that magical moment,” when they would finally turn.
Today, he teaches de-escalation to students, community members and other officers. His day job as Bend Police Department’s student resource officer for Mountain View High School keeps him sharp.
“You want to talk about a challenge, enter the adolescent world. Lots of emotions. Lots of drama,” he said.
Negotiators are discouraged from getting too personal. For instance, most would opt to not talk about their kids, but they can share a little. Negotiators who are military veterans have a faster route to credibility with fellow vets, Beekman said. They might share a hometown, and knowledge of local sports.
At a recent call in Redmond, a hostile subject was more receptive once they brought in Kirk, who works for Redmond Police, an agency that’s had many interactions with the man over the years.
Negotiators from Bend Police hadn’t gotten anywhere with the guy.
“Bend? What are you doing here from Bend?” he asked them. “I don’t even buy my weed in Bend.”
Though all the negotiators are friendly — they chose the assignment for a reason — they know they won’t become friends with the subjects on the other end of the phone.
“In 20 years, when they get let out, are they going to come over to my house and we’re going to grill?” he said. “Probably not.”
Talking to someone in crisis affects a person, Stoaks said.
“You’re going to take on a part of that whether you like it or not,” he said.
Stoaks misted up recalling a woman from several years ago. She was suicidal, and he eventually talked her into coming out and riding with him to the jail. As he was driving, she slumped over unconscious. They drove instead to the hospital. It turned out the woman had taken pills to kill herself while Stoaks was on the phone with her.
She survived, but could have died had she waited much longer to come out, Stoaks said.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org