It’s their job to bring extremely dangerous and volatile situations to a peaceful ending, this is the frontline of police negotiations.
It’s their job to bring extremely dangerous and volatile situations to a peaceful ending, this is the frontline of police negotiations.

Life and death: Inside the world of a police negotiator

THE words and actions of the six townsville police negotiators can be the difference between life and death.

Threatened with knives, shot at, called every name under the sun, it's their job to bring extremely dangerous and volatile situations to a peaceful ending.

The pressure is immense, but the highly trained officers take it in their stride, they know lives depend on it.

 

IT'S NOT FOR EVERYONE

"It takes a certain type of person to become a negotiator and I think you have to identify that you have fairly high communication skills. It's a challenge, definitely," explains seasoned negotiator and detective Sergeant Tony Flanders.

The selection process to become a negotiator is stringent and once you get through that, the training to see if you're cut out for the gig is world class. Enforcement agencies from all over the world travel to Queensland every year to take part in the program.

District Duty Officer, Senior Sergeant Matt Lyons, the longest serving negotiator in the team, says it takes a special kind of person to be a negotiator.

A man has been arrested following an alleged armed standoff with police in a suburban Townsville street. Police, including negotiators, were at the scene of the standoff in Tibarri St, Kirwan, where the man was on the roof of a house with what appeared to police to be a firearm. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.
A man has been arrested following an alleged armed standoff with police in a suburban Townsville street. Police, including negotiators, were at the scene of the standoff in Tibarri St, Kirwan, where the man was on the roof of a house with what appeared to police to be a firearm. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.

 

"The thing about our course is, it's the longest basic negotiators' course in the world, the FBI course is about two weeks, ours is four," Sergeant Lyons said.

"You've either got it or you don't. You have got to be able to think quickly, outside and inside the box, come up with strategies. Much to, probably, the officers' disgust at jobs, we don't just go to jobs and talk. It may appear as though we do that, but as a team we come up with a strategy.

 

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"(The reason I became a negotiator) was the challenge of being involved in these high-pressure incidents and resolving situations where people are in crisis.

"These are the bread-and-butter jobs for negotiators, when people go into crisis and I think the challenge of working within a team to resolve the situation is quite appealing to me."

They bring with them a career and a wealth of life experience, each having their own unique backgrounds that can help resolve some seemingly impossible situations.

"We've all got different backgrounds and we've all got different experiences that we can throw at a job," Senior Sergeant Pat McCarthy said.

"Before I was a negotiator, I was out west for about seven or eight years, you're in a small community, you have to learn to talk to people, you've got to use your communication skills.

"What I see work is people who have different backgrounds, who were brought up differently, you can use that with the people that you're communicating with."

A man has been arrested following an alleged armed standoff with police in a suburban Townsville street. Police, including negotiators, were at the scene of the standoff in Tibarri St, Kirwan, where the man was on the roof of a house with what appeared to police to be a firearm. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.
A man has been arrested following an alleged armed standoff with police in a suburban Townsville street. Police, including negotiators, were at the scene of the standoff in Tibarri St, Kirwan, where the man was on the roof of a house with what appeared to police to be a firearm. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.

THIS ISN'T HOLLYWOOD

The dramatic scenes playing out on film as a negotiator strolls into the room, taking off his bulletproof vest, dropping his gun and declaring we're working on getting the helicopter and a million dollars in a briefcase, isn't quite how it works.

Senior Constable Mark Campbell from the Townsville Tactical Crime Squad says, while the movies may delve into the fanciful, they aren't too far from the reality.

"The reality is, it's exactly like the movies," he says jokingly.

"But there's another three people there, you only ever see one in the movies.

"For it to be real you'd need a team there working with them and that's what we are.

"We can also say no, when they want the cash and the helicopter, that's a no, but it's how you package it to the person in crisis."

And that packaging, the wheeling and dealing to resolve the event, doesn't happen in minutes, it takes time to build trust, to work their way into the situation.

The Officer in Charge of Townsville Police Station, Senior Sergeant Dean Cavanagh, said that was done through honesty.

"It can be a challenge sometimes when we go to jobs, they see us as just police, they see it as we're there to grab them and arrest them and lock them up, but we're not. We're there to be that voice for them … to find out what's going to get them out of that crisis," he said.

"It's done through honesty, we never, ever lie, we've never lied to anyone we've dealt with and we never will."

It's all about the team, it's not just one person ending the situation.

"It's definitely a team effort, everyone has their roles, the person talking to them is the mouthpiece, and you're thinking not just what you're saying, or even two or three things down the track, but you're thinking an hour down the track," Sergeant Flanders said.

"You've got a person who is with that primary negotiator and helping to feed them information and topics of conversation. Then you have other things happening in the background, with people liaising with the other police around and mental health strategies. Having more people involved in the incident, definitely takes the mental strain off one person."

Townsville Police Negotiators Dean Cavanagh, Pat McCarthy, Matt Lyons, Tony Flanders and Mark Campbell. Picture: Alix Sweeney
Townsville Police Negotiators Dean Cavanagh, Pat McCarthy, Matt Lyons, Tony Flanders and Mark Campbell. Picture: Alix Sweeney

THE STAKES ARE HIGH

Often it is quite literally life and death.

When the negotiators get called to the crisis situation, they try to get there as quickly as possible.

"The first 45 minutes of any incident is critical, whether the person is going to harm themselves or kill themselves," Senior Sergeant Lyons said.

"A lot of it is listening. You can't expect to go to a job and just say, 'get down', it just doesn't happen, you haven't listened, you haven't built the rapport, eventually you know when you ask them to do something and they do it, you've got a bit of influence and then you know you're on the right track."

In a lot of the situations the crisis is on a knife's edge.

"It's important to be professional, but to be genuine about how you approach them and have genuine concern for their welfare, because the stakes are so high. You literally have, in some circumstances, a person's life in your hands," Sergeant Flanders said.

"The consequences can be, best case scenario, they come down and thank you for getting them out of the crisis and thank you for stopping themselves from committing suicide, to ending up in coroners court talking about what went wrong."

It's not just talking for the sake of saying things, there's method to the mouthpiece.

"It's all intelligence-based, you want to know as much about the subject as possible," Senior Constable Campbell said.

"You want to find out if their behaviour is normal or not.

"If it's something out of the blue, what's the catalyst? Is it drugs, is it excessive alcohol and that always helps."

They've been called every name under the sun, threatened, shot at, the works.

"It's almost ironic, because we cop a barrage of abuse, we're trying to help the person and we cop it for hours, then they're shaking our hand at the end," Senior Sergeant Cavanagh said.

"I've been to firearm jobs where the subject is in the stronghold, has a firearm and is discharging it.

"The biggest concern for me is the other police that are in the cordon, we're the ones in contact, trying to assess the situation, but the other police are the ones in danger. That increases concerns for me and changes your mindset, because you want to keep them safe."

The stress for the team really only comes right at the crux of the crisis.

"The only pressure I would feel is right on surrender, because then they're surrendering to other coppers, you've discussed their surrender plan with the subject a dozen times, how they're going to do it, nothing in their hands, through the front door and you continue to reinforce that," Senior Constable Campbell said.

"You want them to do exactly that, because if they come out and they just have this plan to make a name for themselves and then someone could get injured.

"The highest priority is the officers' safety, you don't want the arresting team to be hurt and that's the only time I get a bit of pressure, you just want the subject to do exactly what you've said. They don't get hurt, nobody gets hurt."

Originally published as Life and death: Inside the world of Townsville's Police Negotiators



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