Most of the time, nearly everyone involved in a hostage negotiation — including law enforcement officers and the person with whom they are negotiating — understands on some level that the situation might end badly.
“It’s always in the back of our minds. We’re realists,” said Lt. Rob Jones, commander of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s hostage negotiation unit. “But we go into it with a positive attitude. We have to try.”
Jones spearheaded the eight-member team’s efforts Friday to negotiate with a man who authorities say killed his ex-girlfriend’s two brothers, held her hostage for hours and ultimately committed suicide inside his house near 140th and Miami Streets.
Jones was not the negotiator who dealt with Kenneth Clark, 45, on Friday. Instead, Jones was listening to the 10-hour, off-and-on exchange between Clark and the negotiator, and radioing information that he heard to SWAT and patrol officers at the scene.
In an interview Tuesday with The World-Herald, Jones said he couldn’t discuss the team’s interactions with Clark, citing a pending grand jury investigation. But he was willing to outline the general duties of hostage negotiators and talk about what it’s like to try to bring back someone who is at the brink and — in many cases — desperate to end his or her life.
“It’s like a teeter-totter,” Jones said. “Emotions are high, rationale is low. You try to get the emotions down and the rationale up.”
During a standoff like the one involving Clark, everyone on the negotiation team has a strategic part to play.
There is the negotiator, whose only focus is to talk to the person, keep him or her calm and encourage surrendering; the “coach,” an officer who is listening to the conversation, taking notes and offering suggestions of topics and other things to bring up; the “intel-gatherer,” whose job is to figure out information about the person — background, criminal record, recent life change — that might come in handy to the negotiator; a “runner,” who obtains things that are needed, often to answer a suspect’s demands; and a “scribe,” who listens in and records specific information that is relayed to other officers on scene.
The remaining three people on the team serve as support and step in when someone else needs a break.
After several hours, the negotiator who talked to Clark on Friday was able to persuade him to release his ex-girlfriend, Julie Edwards. Clark killed her brothers, Jason Edwards, 41, and John Edwards, 35, who had gone with her to the house to help her move out.
Often, it’s the end of a relationship, a job loss, illness or other traumatic event that causes a person to snap, take a hostage and get into a standoff with police, Jones said.
There are usually two kinds of people who hole up and take hostages, he said: an “instrumental” person, which is a hostage-taker who is only taking a hostage as a means of leverage to negotiate an escape, and an “expressive” person, who is going through a crisis and has an emotional connection to the person they are holding hostage. In many cases, the expressive person’s end goal is suicide, Jones said.
Most hostage-takers are men, and most standoffs last between an hour and four hours, Jones said.
The negotiator aims to be empathetic, to establish a rapport with the person in the hopes of gaining his or her trust. Staying in touch is important. As long as a hostage-taker is on the phone or texting with a negotiator, he or she isn’t harming themselves or someone else, Jones said.
“We get frustrated and sometimes even angry, but we can’t project that,” he said. “(The hostage-taker) is going to mimic that.”
Hostage negotiators undergo yearly ongoing training, Jones said. They tend to be calm people themselves, the types who don’t lash out in times of stress and don’t let the adrenaline rush of a crisis affect them. After a situation ends, the team is encouraged to talk to each other about what happened and seek outside help if need be — especially if the outcome is a death.
It’s hard not to feel responsible at times, said Jones, who also is a Christian minister.
“We feel we have a huge emotional investment in the successful outcome of any standoff (or) barricaded incident,” Jones said. “When the outcome is less than the peaceful ... conclusion for all involved, it has the potential to affect us. It is natural as empathetic human beings.”
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