Police add texting to crisis negotiation arsenal

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 11, 2014 at 9:12 pm •  Published: May 11, 2014
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The suspect in a gas station robbery and 100 mph chase kept pointing his handgun to his head, and police negotiator Andres Wells was doing all he could to keep the man from committing suicide. But he kept cutting Wells' phone calls short.

Then, about 10 minutes after the last hang up, Wells' cellphone chimed. It was a text — from the suspect.

"Please call Amie," the message said, followed by the number of the man's girlfriend.

Wells was taken aback. In three years as a negotiator with the Kalamazoo, Michigan, police, he'd always relied on spoken give-and-take, taking cues from a person's tone of voice, the inflections, emotions. He'd never thought about negotiating via text.

"It had never even been brought up at one of our training," Wells recalled of the 2011 case.

With 6 billion text messages exchanged daily in the U.S. alone, law enforcement officers are increasingly being called upon to defuse violent, unpredictable situations through the typed word. Experts say it's happened enough in the last five years to warrant new, specialized training.

But in Wells' case, he had to adapt on the fly.

"What do you want me to tell her?" he texted back.

"The truth," suspect Jesse Cook wrote.

While Wells ordinarily would rely on a skill called "active listening," he couldn't hear Cook's voice. Cook couldn't hear his. Was he yelling? Crying?

"It's not the preferred method of communication in a crisis, but if it's the only way that we have, then we'll engage," said New York State Police spokeswoman Darcy Wells.

Outside Buffalo, New York, in March, a suspect who'd shot at Erie County Sheriff's deputies responding to a domestic call was carrying on text exchanges with several relatives when law enforcement negotiators got involved in the electronic conversations, eventually persuading him to surrender.

"He didn't want to talk as much as he wanted to text," Sheriff's Capt. Gregory Savage said. "It wasn't part of the training I got when I went through the crisis negotiator school put on by the FBI, but it's something that they are incorporating into any new training."

Red Bank, Tennessee, Police Chief Tim Christol includes texting in his sessions and has published articles on the topic.

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