Talk is negotiation team's tactic


When a man believed to be armed held officers at bay for more than two hours on April 29, negotiators from the Washington County Joint Special Response Team lured him out, in part, with a pack of cigarettes.

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The negotiating team includes Hagerstown City Police Sgts. Jack Hall and Rick Johnson and Washington County Sheriff's Deputies Ken Barnhart and Johnny Marshall.

The officers work together to solve hostage and barricade situations - those in which people are held against their will or someone who may be armed refuses to leave a location.

"Many times we deal with people that are frustrated and have no way to vent. Our job is to listen and interpret what they say so we can bring it to a peaceful resolution," said Hall.


The Special Response Team has been involved in 10 hostage or barricade incidents since Jan. 1, Hall said.

Many such incidents are the result of domestic disputes, lost jobs or personal problems, Hall said.

"Anyone can snap," he said.

Members of the team alternate heading up the negotiations. The other members act as a support unit, doing research on the suspect and providing suggestions to the lead negotiator.

When a barricade or hostage incident occurs, the Special Response Team tactical unit is called along with the negotiating team and an incident commander, said Hall.

Working out of the Special Response Team's mobile command center, the negotiators interview a suspect's family members, friends, neighbors and police officers on the scene.

They use the information to determine the source of the problem, how to deal with the individual and whether there might be weapons in the home.

"We try to find out as much information as we can about what triggered the event," said Johnson.

The incident commander continually evaluates how the negotiations are going to determine whether officers need to use force to take the individual into custody. A debriefing is held after every incident for officers to assess their reactions.

When talking to a person involved in a hostage or barricade incident, officers have to tread lightly, said Hall. "You have to watch for words or subjects that might set him off."

Officers use experiences in their own lives to empathize and will not use lies to bring a incident to a close, he said. "You may have to deal with that person in future negotiations."

During the talks, it is important for negotiators to stay calm, said Johnson.

"I've been called every name in the book," he said. "You just have to keep in sight what you are trying to do."

He said maturity, experience and training help.

All the members of the Special Response negotiating team are veteran officers and have undergone specialized training to deal with hostage and barricade situations.

No suspect has ever been shot by police during negotiations in Washington County, according to Hall.

Sometimes incidents can drag on. On Mothers' Day 1999, officers alleged a man refused to allow his wife to leave their Hagerstown home. The standoff spanned eight hours before police took the man into custody by force.

During lengthy negotiations, officers trade off leading the discussions about every four hours because it is physically and emotionally draining, Hall said.

"You are so focused on what you're doing - on every word you say and every word he says - trying to interpret what's going on," he said.

Despite the intensity of the job, being a negotiator is fulfilling, Johnson said. "There's a sense of satisfaction when an incident has culminated in no one getting hurt."

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