Day in the life of the... Police Negotiating Team

Vol 46, No.1 | NZPA | Fri February 1st, 2013

This police team goes to callouts armed only with their phones and the power of persuasion. By Deb Stringer.

Last month, police negotiators in Auckland spent several tense hours with an agitated man who was threatening to jump off the Sky Tower.

Police negotiator with man on Sky TowerDuring the five-hour drama, a police negotiator talked to the man on the edge of the 328-metre landmark. The mental health patient was refusing to co-operate until the negotiators called in a minister from the Jehovah’s Witness church who managed to talk him down.

It was an extraordinary day for the team, with a fortunate outcome. Not every callout has such a successful resolution. Police in Hawke’s Bay will never forget the 2009 Napier siege during which Jan Molenaar fatally shot Senior Constable Len Snee and seriously injured Senior Constables Bruce Miller and Grant Diver and civilian Len Holmwood before killing himself.

Molenaar was holed up in his home, surrounded by an arsenal of guns and ammunition, firing at will. It was a stand-off that police were desperate to resolve, not least because they wanted to retrieve the body of their colleague who lay dead on the street.

It would be two and half days before they gained access to the house, where they found Molenaar dead.

During that time, there was a lot of speculation about Molenaar’s state of mind. One person who was better placed than most to judge that was one of the police negotiators, Palmerston North Senior Constable Mark Glentworth.

Once police cordons were put in place, the police negotiating team attempted to reach Molenaar by phone. All other incoming and outgoing calls were blocked.

It took 12 hours for Molenaar to pick up.

“We were calling at 10-minute intervals and finally, at around 11pm, I just heard a click and he was on the line,” Mark says.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Molenaar wasn’t very forthcoming, and Mark believed his motive for picking up the phone was only to gauge what was going on outside.

Napier siege

Above: In May 2009, negotiators, including Mark Glentworth, were part of the police team at the 2½ day Napier siege. Photo: FAIRFAX MEDIA.

The calls to Molenaar continued through to the early hours of the next morning. During one conversation, Molenaar said he wanted to apologise to the families of the officers he had shot, but then he abruptly hung up and fired off some more rounds.

Mark says that response illustrates the complexities of the negotiator’s job. “You have to really listen for clues because they may tell you one thing and do another.”

The last time Molenaar picked up the phone was about 7am, with his voice revealing a beaten and broken man. “He just sounded completely and utterly exhausted and soon after that our team was relieved of our post and someone else took over.”

Mark says the Molenaar case was one of the most memorable in his 12 years as a police negotiator.

The team is also trained to deal with high-risk hostage situations, the majority of which are handled via a phone. If an offender doesn’t have access to a phone, which is highly unlikely these days, the negotiating team will try to provide one.

During a callout, the primary negotiator acts as the “mouthpiece” of the operation, attempting to build a rapport with the offender to gain compliance. A secondary negotiator, acting as a second pair of ears, offers advice and tries to minimise outside distractions. A team leader is the point of contact with other police, such as the Armed Offenders Squad, and helps the negotiators stay on track toward a successful resolution.

Police negotiators must be open-minded and have strong listening and interviewing skills. They must be persistent and remain focused under pressure. Non-negotiable items include alcohol, illicit drugs, exchange of hostages and supply of weapons.

Mark says another callout that left a lasting impression came after the fatal shooting of Detective Constable Duncan Taylor, at Rongotea in Manawatu in 2002, by 17-year-old Daniel Luff. Luff then held his former girlfriend and her family hostage in a farm house.

“I was the secondary negotiator and the case was very difficult to work on as I had trained with Duncan and, once again, it was a long, complex negotiation that involved an imminent threat to police.”

At such times, Mark says, working with like-minded people is invaluable, because being a successful negotiator is all about being a team player.

“You may not be the mouthpiece of the operation every time, but everyone has a set role each time we deploy, whether it’s speaking to witnesses or family members to gain a greater understanding of what’s going on with the person in crisis, or just relaying other information back from the AOS guys who are manning the cordons.”

In any job where he puts on his police negotiating hat, keeping the people on the scene as safe as possible is the primary goal, he says.

Mark Glentworth

Above: Following an AOS callout last year where a soldier from Linton Army Camp had barricaded himself in a house, police negotiator Mark Glentworth was sent in, complete with gas mask because of the presence of tear-gas, to photograph the scene.

The Police Negotiating Team

  • There are 17 PNTs around the country.
  • The main aim is to resolve situations using negotiating techniques without loss of life, injury to any person or damage to property.
  • Although each team deploys with an Armed Offenders Squad, they are a separate specialist group and can attend callouts independently.
  • Callouts include hostage negotiations, crisis intervention (potential suicides), high-risk warrants, riots, kidnapping, or any other event that involves offenders with weapons or who have barricaded themselves in buildings.
  • Being a police negotiator is a part-time role and all members must complete a two-week intensive training course, with an annual refresher, that includes crisis intervention and listening skills.
  • With the rise of social media, PNTs are looking at how they might use this form of communication in the future.

Top: Last month, police negotiators were involved with the dramatic “talking down” of a man who was threatening to jump off Auckland’s Sky Tower. Photo: FAIRFAX MEDIA

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