A woman calls 911, hysterical. She tells the call taker that her boyfriend, a military vet, is despondent and threatening to commit suicide by way of a handgun in his home. The girlfriend is calling from a cell phone outside of the house. A crisis negotiator hears the call dispatched and responds to the location where he is met by the complainant. The pair is talking two houses down and across the street from the crisis site. As the negotiator is getting the story from her, the boyfriend comes out onto the front porch with the handgun in his hand. The negotiator pushes the woman back toward her car, draws his handgun and challenges the boyfriend. The boyfriend has now reached the bottom of the steps and begins to walk across the street. The negotiator is still challenging him to stop and/or drop the handgun. The boyfriend kneels down in the middle of the street and begins to cry.
The normal resources to manage such an event were on the way but had yet to arrive. As the negotiator related this story to me he described the irony listening to the man, trying establish rapport, conducting suicide intervention all while trying to pick up his front sight. He was trying to save the man but was fully prepared to fight if it became necessary. Intrigued by the duality in this situation, I wondered how many other negotiators would have behaved the same way. How many of them would be so focused on the negotiation that they compromised their safety? To answer this, I arranged a training scenario based on this event for a local team. Their performance was shocking.
The role player was instructed to display despondence and depression. He was positioned partially concealed about 45 feet away from the point where the negotiators (primary and coach) “arrived on-scene”. He was told to engage them in conversation at his original position and then slowly move from concealment. He then began closing the distance between he and the negotiators. Sometimes the handgun was at his side. Sometimes it was at his head as he incrementally took the space between him and them. Some of the negotiators in the exercise never drew their weapon. Others drew and kept it at low ready. All allowed him to close the distance unchallenged. A few allowed him to get within a car length of their position. One even allowed him to chase him around the vehicle. So caught up in their role as negotiator, none were ready to fight. None established a Kill Line. I repeated the exercise last week with some other negotiators. The results were the same. I asked one what he was thinking as the role player closed to within 8 feet. He said, “I was too focused on the dialogue.”
The Kill Line is a landmark within an operating environment that a negotiator, in an open-air negotiation, should use to determine where/when he will engage in deadly force. It can by a tree, a line in a parking lot, pole or a hydrant. It is the line of demarcation where the negotiator says to herself and hopefully to her partner, “If he walks past that line, we are going to stop him.” The purpose for the exercise above was not to embarrass the team but to reinforce with them that their safety takes precedent over everything else. Yes, we are there to save a life but not at our own expense.