Vol. 76, No. 1External submissions

Gaining the perspective of a person in crisis

Det. Teresa Irvin and Officer Michael Baker interview "Robert" following a police standoff at his residence. Credit: Officer Michael Baker


Coming into contact with mentally ill and violent individuals is far from an unusual occurrence for most police officers.

As a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), with 20 years' experience as a SWAT tactical team operator, a senior Crisis Negotiation Team member and a volunteer crisis intervention counselor with the L.A. Suicide Prevention Center, I've witnessed and negotiated with many individuals who suffer from diagnosed and undiagnosed forms of mental illness, and many others who are in the midst of a potentially life-altering crisis.

In 2009, following just such an encounter, I was introduced to Detective Teresa Irvin, a 20-year veteran of the LAPD who supervises the Crisis Response Support Section of the LAPD's Mental Evaluation Unit.

While debriefing with Detective Irvin, we discovered a shared passion for understanding and competently responding to the ever-increasing population of mentally ill and violence-prone citizens on the streets, especially those confronted by law enforcement officers during daily patrol duties.

It made perfect sense to learn more about the best ways to interact with those suffering mental illness or those experiencing crisis in their lives, and share that with the police department's first responders.

Recognizing that recidivist behaviour is common among criminals and those suffering a mental illness, we began discussing strategies that could not only minimize or totally eliminate the chances of future law enforcement encounters with these groups, but also lower or prevent the chances of those interactions escalating to the point of violence when they do occur.

These discussions eventually led to an organized interview process conducted with the players involved in critical incidents and their interaction with crisis negotiators and first responders.

There is great value in de-escalating a potentially violent encounter between first responders and the mentally ill by using successful crisis intervention and negotiations.

What hadn't been tried, and which made perfect sense, was using an introspective examination of the individual who eventually had become the subject of a law enforcement response and apprehension.

This was the genesis of the program that attempted to hone the reactions, responses and de-escalation skills of law enforcement and emergency personnel to citizens in crisis. The process involved conducting post-incident interviews with adjudicated criminals in custody and mentally ill individuals institutionalized or housed in controlled settings.

Through these post-incident debriefs, it became clear that while many of the individuals interviewed came from unique backgrounds and had personal stories that explained the situations they found themselves in, there were also common themes in many of these calls for service. These included responders who displayed a resounding lack of empathy and an absence of any sincere concern for the individual's problems.

In other words, the interests of the individuals were not being adequately explored and, as a result, negotiations never developed, and confrontations and altercations became more frequent.

Failing to recognize and address the core interests and issues that are overwhelming someone in crisis at that moment can exacerbate the crisis and result in a police officer becoming nothing more than an additional antagonist for the individual to resist and contend with rather than co-operate with.

The interviews

One interview conducted with an imprisoned person we'll call "Robert" for this article, revealed that he had overheard conversations between SWAT team members deployed in close-containment positions during a standoff at his residence.

The SWAT officers' dialogue consisted of derogatory topics and statements directed at Robert and the inconveniences this particular emergency response had placed on the responding officers' personal holiday plans.

The negotiators were unaware that Robert was overhearing conversations occurring around the perimeter of his house, and were obviously at a disadvantage from the onset in this particular negotiation process. Robert doubted the sincerity of the negotiators because in his eyes the negotiators and the SWAT officers all wore the same uniforms, and in the end were all cops who held the same negative opinions concerning his current circumstances.

Robert additionally believed that he had legitimate reasons for staying barricaded inside of his house with his wife and daughter. He felt he was the victim of an assault by his wife, who earlier in the day had stabbed him during a domestic dispute. His physical response to his wife's alleged assault was, in his opinion, self-defence and justifiable.

Robert had a message and wanted to be heard on this issue. Instead, all negotiations focused on the status and conditions of Robert's wife and daughter during the barricade incident. The only attention given to Robert was a concern for satisfying his possible needs for food, drink and rest, all of which were only introduced as part of a ploy to distract him and ultimately initiate a tactical intervention to resolve the situation.

Robert was a "bad guy," and there was no denying that fact, but if the goal is to negotiate a peaceful resolution with someone, negotiators must be able to acknowledge and show a concern for the issues in play for the person they are attempting to bargain with, and they must be able to successfully sell them on their sincerity in the process.

Productive negotiations, and ultimately the successful de-escalation of a potentially violent interaction, are the consequences of communications that are "interest-based" and competently implemented into the crisis negotiation evolution.

Providing comfort or tending to the physical needs of a subject during a crisis can help to gain rapport, but doesn't address the true crux of the crisis, the flashpoint that caused that person to go over the edge and resort to criminal and violent behaviours.

First responders must begin to address the real reasons for stagnant and unproductive communications – those issues being the concerns and interests at the core of the current situation at hand.

The condition of hostages and victims in a SWAT standoff should be of primary importance to everyone involved. But, if responders show no concern for the issues and interests of the party they are negotiating with, they'll struggle during any attempt at intervention, and will be setting themselves up for failure in achieving a peaceful resolution through negotiation.

Post-incident debriefs afforded the interviewers the opportunity to explore issues of importance to individuals involved in police interventions – issues that were initially avoided or ignored during the incipient crisis but that warranted law enforcement response.

Robert's barricade, which was ultimately resolved through a tactical intervention, ended with no further injuries to anyone involved, but could just have easily culminated in a violent and potentially deadly interaction.

Many police responses that end with the "bad guys" going to jail and the "good guys" going home to their families are the result of a combination of excellent training, exemplary tactics and old-fashioned good luck.

But gaining insight into the mind of a person in crisis may reduce the percentage of luck involved in that equation, and eventually lead to a successful and peaceful apprehension.

And the knowledge procured through post-incident interviews will help preserve the lives and ensure the safety of first responders and police, making the work involved in them a worthwhile and proactive exercise in survival.

Peaceful resolutions sought through successful negotiations, unlike tactical interventions that may seek similar goals, minimize the chance of future litigation proceedings and ultimately save money for local government.

It goes without saying that potentially violent situations, concluded through conversation, also virtually eliminate or at least lessen the possibility of exposing officers to the physical and emotional wounds that are almost guaranteed to surface with the deployment of physical intervention strategies and operations.

Recidivism runs rampant within the ranks of the incarcerated, and due to the overcrowding issues associated with the jailing of perpetrators, the revolving doors of the incarcerating institutions are swinging more regularly in the direction of the exit portals in jails and prisons for many of the previously convicted criminals in our society.

Detective Irvin and I believe that professionally conducted post-incident interviews can demonstrate to those interviewed that police officers are compassionate and sincere people who have a true desire to perform their jobs better.

The conduct of law enforcement, and the respect afforded to the individual during the interview process, will remain in the mind of the people interviewed. That image stays in prison with them while they serve their time, and goes out the door with them when they are paroled and released.

Future encounters with recidivist criminals can be positively influenced through properly handled post-incident interviews, and violent responses to future interventions can be avoided.

Criminals will talk amongst themselves while incarcerated and after they are released, and wouldn't it be nice to know that some of those conversations reflected positive feelings toward law enforcement.

Educational tool

Detective Irvin and I continue to work toward enhancing first responder and law enforcement education, focusing primarily on how to better de-escalate and safely handle encounters with the mentally ill and criminal element.

The information gathered through the post-incident debriefs is being carefully deciphered and documented in the hope that it may be used to enhance officer safety, lessen or eliminate liability concerns, and decrease injuries to officers and the individuals during interactions on duty.

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