By Brent Curtis
Staff Writer | February 09,2013
Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo
Members of the Rutland City Police Department go through hostage negotiation training with Vermont State Police. City Detective Raymond LaMoria, left, and Cpl. Gregory Sheldon, center, contact a hostage-holder by telephone as state police Detective Michael Notte takes notes.
The hostage negotiation wasn’t real, but it felt that way to Detective Keith Lorman.
The Rutland City Police veteran called the situation “intense” — a half-hour standoff with another negotiator posing as a distraught woman who just lost her job and threatened suicide.
“Her biggest thing was she couldn’t raise and provide for her daughter,” Lorman said. “She was so concerned about her daughter. I knew that was her focus so I told her that no one can be a better parent than a natural parent and she needed to think about that.”
The crisis that Lorman and a team of two other officers resolved this week was just one of a number of scenarios that Vermont State Police trainers ran for negotiators.
During a two-day course designed to update training for both city and state police, officers were exposed to high-pressure situations driven by everything from family crises to addiction and mental health issues.
All had the potential to end in violence and negotiators had to deal with demands, phone hang-ups and the angry shouts of hostage takers. But no matter how desperate the situation, state police Lt. Reg Trayah, who oversaw the training, said a good negotiator has a chance to resolve matters peacefully.
“There are no no-win situations in my book,” Trayah said.
Hostage situations like the one that played out in Alabama last week involving a 5-year-old held at gunpoint in a bunker are extremely rare in Vermont. But Trayah, former head of the state police Hostage Negotiating Unit, said there are plenty of other situations in which mediators play a role.
Suicide attempts are one example, he said. So are situations involving domestic disputes, child-custody situations and standoffs with those who barricade themselves in their homes.
“We are the way to successfully get out of a situation safely,” he said.
Trayah and other ranking negotiators led the eight-member state police negotiating team and the eight-member city police negotiating team through classroom exercises and simulated scenarios at the city police station this week.
“This is unique,” Trayah said. “It’s the first time we’ve been called in by a department to help them out.”
The negotiating team was invited two months ago by city Police Chief James Baker — a retired state police colonel — who said the idea has been on his mind since an incident on a School Street rooftop last summer involving a man who police believed was armed.
“I started thinking about how to go about backing up our own assets,” Baker said. “The final piece was the issues with the schools with concerns about people going into the buildings. I decided it would be wise for us to re-establish our training.”
Trayah said helping the city officers train could help him in the future.
The eight members of the state police hostage team are spread out around the state. With capable negotiators on the city’s force, he said he would be confident working alongside them in a hostage situation.
“I think it’s a great model,” Trayah said. “Now, if we’re called to a scene I’m confident that I can reach out and grab someone who’s trained on the city PD.”
All of the officers and troopers who trained in Rutland this week have participated in instruction and simulations before.
But for some of the officers, opportunities to update and use their negotiating skills are few and far between.
“I haven’t actually been in a negotiating situation like what we ran through, but a lot of the things you do are things that as a police officer you’re doing almost every day anyway,” Lorman said.
“You’re always dealing with situations that are the worst things to happen in someone’s life and their emotions are running high,” he added. “They’re so escalated and it’s your job to try to talk them down.”
Along those lines, Trayah said the first thing a good negotiator does is listen closely, relate to what a person is saying and try to build a rapport.
“Even though you maybe can’t relate to what a person is doing, you can understand when a person is frustrated with events and scared, and you have to relate to them on that level,” he said.
Fellow trainer and state police Detective Sgt. Albert Abdelnour said hope is a powerful motivator.
“It’s our job to show them it’s not over, that there are avenues out of the situation they’re in,” he said.
Of course, while the negotiators work to defuse situations, a tactical unit remains ready to move in if talks break down.
“If there’s not an immediate threat, you keep going,” Abdelnour said. “But if they pick up a gun and put it to someone’s head or if someone is losing control, especially if a mental illness is involved, then the (tactical) team goes in.”