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Criminal negotiators juggle trust and safety

Pitsburgh Post-Gazette (04/20/2003)

By Lillian Thomas

In the razor-edge moments of crisis negotiation, a man with a gun who doesn’t trust police means the conversation will be complicated.

Pittsburgh police experienced that in February 2002, when Cecil Brookins climbed to a Homewood rooftop, berated police and talked about black-on-black crime, all the while holding a gun that he sometimes pointed at himself.

Brookins, who had bolted to the roof when officers tried to arrest him on outstanding warrants, had a criminal history that included firearms violations and resisting arrest. As police arrived in force and sent officers to talk to him, it was clear that he saw the police as the problem, not the solution.

So the police temporarily turned a commander into a social worker, presenting Dom Costa as an employee of Health and Human Services.

The decision to lie about Costa’s identity illustrates a dichotomy of crisis negotiations: A key to a successful resolution is building trust, but sometimes misrepresentation of the facts seems a good way to buy that trust.

Costa, of the Squirrel Hill station, who had for years been a special-deployment-team leader and negotiator, heard about the standoff on his way home and headed toward Homewood, figuring he could help. Costa was not in uniform because he was off duty.

A quick decision was made to present Costa as a social worker, testimony at Brookins’ trial last week revealed. Brookins was leery about talking to police, and the offer of a social worker was intended to make him more comfortable.

Costa testified that he revealed his actual identity within 10 minutes of starting to talk to Brookins. He said it was important to establish trust and that continuing the deception, particularly when he was wearing his badge on his belt, was a bad idea.

Sgt. Ronald Griffin, who testified last week that officers told Brookins that Costa was a social worker, characterized it as a “ruse” designed to get Costa into the picture.

Costa and another officer as well as Brookins ended up wounded by gunfire that broke out just as it seemed Brookins was surrendering. Brookins is being tried for attempted homicide and aggravated assault.

Costa’s presence in the house led to a second misrepresentation to Brookins -- that SWAT officers had been cleared from the third floor. The shooting started after Brookins caught sight of SWAT officers.

Those who train police negotiators say they never teach their students to be dishonest.

The experts said it would be inappropriate to comment on a specific case, particularly since it’s related to an ongoing trial. But they offered a general outline of the standards of negotiation.

“One of the basic maxims, if you will, of negotiating is you do not lie,” said Sgt. Terry Morrow of the Texas Association of Hostage Negotiators, who trains police negotiators. “You do not lie, basically, because if you try to lie, you can get caught.”

Costa echoed that in explaining why he revealed his identity soon after he started talking to Brookins.

Morrow said negotiators were not supposed to be the ones calling the shots at the scene. Standard procedures are that negotiators not be ranking officers, and that they serve more as intermediaries, passing along requests, demands and issues that require decisions.

Thus, if a hostage taker demands a helicopter, the negotiator can honestly say he has no power to authorize such a thing.

“If someone is making a demand, we pass it along to someone in charge. Then we tell the subject that we've passed it along and are waiting for an answer.”

What if a hostage taker threatens to kill a hostage if a demand isn’t met and it’s not a demand that officials are prepared to meet?

“You‘re asking do we lie to people,” said Dr. Wayman C. Mullins, a psychologist who serves as an adviser to crisis negotiating teams and is co-author of a text on the subject. “Not if we can help it.”

Mullins, a professor at Southwest Texas State University who regularly runs training seminars for negotiators, said that in addition to ethical issues, lying has great practical risks.

“You don’t want to say anything that can blow up.”

And they could blow up in a future incident as well. “We see repeat hostage takers, repeat barricade subjects. If another agency has lied to them [in previous incidents] we‘re going to have all kind of trouble.”

But in a case where, for example, a barricaded person demands that all police leave, negotiators would let him know “that we‘re not going home, that we‘re here for a reason,” Mullins said.

The negotiator might ask that the person in charge of the tactical team move his officers back a little, Mullins said, “Then he’d say, ‘I talked to the commander, he’s got them back, he’s taken care of it.’ Have you lied, or distorted his perception?”

The goal of the negotiator, Mullins said, is to “progress the incident” -- get the person closer to abandoning plans for a desperate act.

Or, Mullins said, the negotiator might be explicit about offering to move the team back to a certain point and make a deal to do it.

That’s what happened in the Brookins case, according to Costa’s testimony. Brookins wanted the SWAT officers cleared from the house. Costa told him he couldn’t arrange that, but he could have them cleared from the third floor, where Brookins would re-enter the home when he came off the roof to surrender.

Sometimes the negotiator doesn’t lie, but someone else takes action that turns his words into untruths. That’s apparently what happened after Costa told Brookins that SWAT officers were being cleared from the third floor.

Griffin, who had been negotiating with Brookins earlier in the incident, testified that although Costa had instructed that the third floor be cleared, officers remained. The SWAT team leader, in consultation with his commander, did not move all officers out because he felt it was not the right thing to do.

Costa didn’t know that his order had been countermanded, so he and Brookins were both surprised, Griffin said, when SWAT team members turned out to be there after all as Brookins came into the house to surrender.

Surprises aren’t good, though certainly not uncommon in such situations, said Mullins.

“Surrender can be a tricky time. We know the surrender point is emotional. The person is actually giving up. It’s a tense situation. We try to be specific and tell him exactly what to do, what to expect, where folks are going to be.

“Sometimes, the negotiators may have been working hard toward that and then the guy may surrender too fast, he may go in before tactical is ready. People are trying to get in place, and all of a sudden the bad guy says he’s going to surrender and he’s going to do it now and he gets surprised by seeing people where he didn’t expect to see them.”

When Brookins came inside after Costa had persuaded him to lay down his weapon, he went to a different room and spotted three SWAT officers out of a window. Brookins slammed the window shut, and, according to police, it was shortly after that that he drew a gun from his waistband and began firing.

Costa, SWAT Officer Thomas Huerbin and Brookins were wounded in the gunfight that followed.

Mullins said such miscues were bound to happen at times.

“These situations are so fluid and dynamic. These are emotional people. They’re kind of trapped, and they make decisions based on emotions, without thinking.

“The negotiator tries to listen, to get the person to settle down emotionally, to get him to stop making threats, to start cooperating and ultimately surrender. It’s an important thing to realize that we try to help them make decisions, but the actor makes the decisions, not us.”