By Loie Gilot
Their job is to defuse explosive situations by using a phone for a weapon and words for ammunition.
The Sheriff's Department Crisis Negotiation Team has been talking barricaded people into releasing hostages, out of committing suicide and into surrendering for 10 years. Last month, the team's eight members were named the best police negotiators in Texas after a seven-hour exercise at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
The competition offered a rare glimpse into the growing field of crisis negotiation.
Fifteen years ago, the El Paso Police Department was the only local agency with a crisis negotiation team, trained by the FBI. Since then, the Sheriff's Department has formed a team, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service created a team last year to handle possible hostage situations at its detention center.
The scenario presented to the sheriff's team last month was as follows: Three masked men carrying bags walk past a secretary and into the board room of a major corporation facing financial ruin. The men barricade themselves, along with four board members. The secretary calls 911.
Team members assumed their roles. Detective Onesimo Esparza was the "number one," the only person to speak with the hostage takers. Deputy Robert Horstman was the "number two," assisting Esparza by passing him notes during phone conversations. Other team members recorded every step of the negotiations, wrote pertinent information on a board and gathered information about the hostage takers and their hostages.
The first call, made to a university employee posing as the lead hostage taker, was brief. He said he wanted the CEO of the company brought to him and hung up.
Esparza and Horstman decided the man sounded articulate but angry.
"Let him vent. Roll with the emotions," Horstman advised Esparza.
For the next few hours, Esparza made many more phone calls, getting the hostage taker to express his frustration and calm down. "Then I hit him with reality, and I walked him through the surrender ritual," Esparza said.
Teams members were pulled from their regular assignments and into their specially equipped RV to answer negotiation calls six times last year. They successfully negotiated a peaceful surrender every time.
It has been more than three years since the last SWAT team intervention in the county. Meanwhile, the police crisis negotiation team answered 16 calls last year, and SWAT team members intervened in half of them.
"It's satisfying to help somebody out," said Deputy Ray Alvarez, who has been with the team since its inception. "Everybody has crises."
"You want everybody to go home safe," Detective Hope Gomez said.
An average crisis negotiation call lasts four hours, team members said.
Even given all the guidelines, the manuals and the training sessions, negotiating often requires originality. Team leader Sgt. Ruben Orozco said team members sat at the bottom of an empty pool to comfort a suicidal man, sent notes back and forth to a deaf and mute barricaded man and coaxed a cornered man out with a cigarette.