This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of the Old Colony Memorial, it is the third in a series by several authors.
All around the duplex, the area is flooded with light and sound. Yellow tape and sawhorses stand between police vehicles holding back neighbors clutching cups from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Police officers draped in black grab gas masks and assault weapons. Commanders bark orders. Sirens blare. Snipers are stationed at high points looking into windows at the barricaded suspect.
“All of the training in the world really doesn’t prepare you for the crises that always tend to happen just after midnight,” Eonas said.
That first call into the field came at 12:30 a.m. Just off maternity leave, Eonas, by day a deputy general counsel to the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department, was understandably groggy as she made her way to a street in Attleboro. She spent a year training with the FBI in New Hampshire to learn about crisis negotiation, and it was finally time to see how well that held up in the field.
There are three categories of tactical situations — barricaded subjects, hostage situations and suicides — Eonas told the audience present at an evening of the Citizen’s Academy sponsored by the sheriff’s department. Along with Capt. Mel Sprague of the Plymouth County House of Corrections, Eonas was there to talk about how law enforcement approached these situations.
While a tactical situation is an impressive show of force, the goal is to never have to use it. Using that force poses a risk to the victims, the subjects and the law enforcement officers.
“People think that the tactical response team, once we get activated, we want to go in with guns blazing. That’s not the case at all,” Sprague said.
In a crisis, there are a lot of things going on at once between the tactical and negotiating teams, and there is a certain level of interdependence. Without the tactical teams, negotiations often can’t get off the ground. In situations where negotiations won’t work, they can at least buy time for the tactical team to formulate a plan. In the meantime, members of the negotiating team are interviewing neighbors and family members, all while getting any records they can get their hands on to find some common ground with the subject.
The initial contact is critical in setting the tone of negotiations because the wrong words from an untrained officer could push a subject over the edge and leave negotiators little to work with.
Once negotiators are on the line, they try and build a rapport and trust with the subject over the hours of the conversation, giving and taking little things to get a sense of what’s going on and ultimately how the situation could be resolved. During all of this, the negotiators try to get the subject to calm down and think rationally. To do that, negotiators have a variety of tools and techniques, most of which amount to never really saying no to a subject even as they attempt to defuse the situation.
In Attleboro, a neighbor called police after a bullet had flown through a wall she shared with the subject. Information started to come in after police arrived on the scene. His wife and child were in the house, he had a gun, and he had a history of mental illness that would later be revealed as paranoid schizophrenia.
The initial conversation was cause for concern, as Eonas’ efforts to talk to the wife were blocked by the subject.
“His only explanation for not putting her on the phone was, ‘I don’t want to wake her up.’ Well, if you were in this neighborhood at this time, there wasn’t a house in a five-mile radius that wasn’t up,” Eonas said.
During their training, negotiators are taught to recognize red flags in conversations, words and phrases that indicate a subject may not come quietly, and this subject’s evasions and fabrications raised one over the negotiation.
Negotiators and the tactical team also want to isolate a subject from the outside world, working with utility companies to shut off or reroute phones. Ideally, the negotiators will narrow a subject’s lines of communication to a throw phone, a dedicated hard line between negotiators and the subject. Getting the phone to the door is often a problem for tactical officers, who don’t want to expose themselves to fire, and for subjects who don’t want to open the door to an ambush.
They told the subject they were concerned about his cell phone’s battery, so they would need to use the throw phone. The commander decided that in this case, the team would use a robot to deliver it.
“We were tasked with explaining to a paranoid schizophrenic at 3 a.m. that a robot was going to come up to his door with a little black box, and that he should come out and take it and feel perfectly comfortable opening it,” Eonas said.
It took another two hours of negotiating to regain the footing that the robot proposal lost.
The negotiating team re-examined its position, looking back at the information they had. The dispute with the neighbor proved to be the key, since it stemmed from his concern over the sale value of his property. So the tactical team and negotiators gave him two options — the phone could go through the window or he could pick it up off of the front porch.
It was clear to Eonas that tactical wanted the subject on the porch for a particular reason, and she also didn’t see these negotiations leading to anything.
When the subject stepped out onto the porch, the tactical team moved in quickly and brought him down with less lethal tools. During a sweep of the home, officers found five guns hidden around the home, but the wife and child were both safe and apparently undisturbed by the fruits of the subject’s behavior.
Not every situation resolves itself so neatly, but the two sides of the tactical command try to keep things from running out of control.
“If we have to go tactical, we didn’t do our jobs,” Sprague said.