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Annual event helps police hone their negotiating skills

www.mysa.com San Antonio Express-News  (01/11/2003)

By Manny Gonzales

Jeff Johnson was described as a deadly sexual predator with a penchant for pregnant women and little boys.

Earlier this week, Johnson and two cohorts armed with rifles and what seemed like bad intentions entered a bank filled with employees, customers and two expectant mothers.

“Johnson” was not really a sex-offending bank robber, though; he was a police officer playing a part. And this wasn’t a real bank robbery; it was a mock scenario intended to train and test negotiators.

As police surrounded the building, negotiators searched for the words that would coax the gunmen into giving up.

“If I have to hurt them, I’ll hurt them,” Johnson yelled to a negotiator over the phone. “It won’t be the first time I’ve hurt someone, and it sure ... won’t be the last.”

Police negotiators from across the state converged on Southwest Texas State University this week to train and compete against each other by defusing simulated yet realistic hostage crises.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Department and San Antonio Police Department were among the 30 or so other agencies represented at the 13th annual competition sponsored by the SWT criminal justice program, the San Marcos Police Department and the Hays County Sheriff’s Office.

“We all treat these scenarios like they’re the real thing,” said SAPD Sgt. Eddie Klauer, supervisor of the department’s hostage negotiation team. “You’ll see us running around, pulling our hair out and yelling at each other. It gets intense.”

Police agencies began training officers to deal with hostage negotiations as early as the 1970s when people began to believe that SWAT teams should be used only as a last resort.

“There are two types (of) mentalities at work when we respond to hostage situations,” Bexar County Sheriff’s Sgt. R.D. Zeigler said. “There are the SWAT guys who want to go in there and get the guy. And then there’s us, the negotiators who want to see everyone come out safe, even the hostage-taker.”

Recent incidents in San Antonio have shown a need for trained negotiators.

Last May, Paul Wiseman, 45, had just lost a $10 million lawsuit. Authorities allege that he took two women hostage at a Northwest Side San Antonio Federal Credit Union armed with four rifles. After nine hours, he shot himself in the shoulder before surrendering to negotiators who promised that he’d be allowed to talk to his doctor and son.

“We do our best to keep our word and not lie,” Klauer said. “If a negotiator is caught in a lie, then we have to start over from scratch and try to rebuild trust with a different negotiator.”

Klauer in September talked a schizophrenic patient holed up at the Audie Murphy VA Hospital into giving himself up after two hospital staffers were shot with a flare pistol. Robert Sterling Bobbit complained that the government inserted a microchip in him that was driving him crazy.

“With people who are crazed like that, you have to give them time to vent so that you can bring them to their senses,” Klauer said.

One of the city’s most publicized hostage standoffs occurred three years ago when a man claiming to have a live grenade held Archbishop Patrick Flores and a secretary hostage at the Catholic Chancery.

SAPD Officer Barbara Williams, a 10-year veteran in police negotiation, was one of the officers on the team that ended the nine-hour standoff.

On Thursday, Williams’ challenge was to calmly talk “Jeff Johnson” into surrendering. Described as a 39-year-old prison escapee who admitted to raping his own mother, Johnson started to come on to Williams even as he threatened to kill hostages.

But good negotiators don’t let emotions get to them. They’re trained to identify the hostage-taker’s personality and know how to deal with it. They’re good listeners and know that as long as the hostage-takers are talking, they aren’t killing.

But in this exercise, there was an extra element negotiators had to deal with; an armed security guard with a “Rambo” complex was hiding in a back room.

“You never know what you’re going to encounter in these exercises or in real life,” Bexar Sheriff’s negotiator Victor Rocha said. “But this competition should prepare us for anything.”