First Person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am

Peter Morgan is head of the police negotiation unit and has set up a special team in a bid to bring down suicide rates in Eastern District. He explains how the work of negotiators isn't always the way it appears in Hollywood movies.

Thanks to Hollywood, the work of police negotiators has taken on a bit of a cachet recently. There has been an American TV series on here called Standoff. Most of what they depict isn't very accurate. Then there have been movies like The Negotiator as well as a few local TV documentary-dramas about negotiators.

It has increased interest in what we do.

I even get e-mails from people in university or in China studying psychology or related degrees asking how they can become police negotiators. Unfortunately you have to be a police officer before you can be a negotiator. You can't just come in because you happen to have some academic skills. We only recruit from within the police force and we do a series of tests and choose the best of the bunch.

Our kudos has been rising over the years, so we do get a lot of people who apply. Our problem is quality control because not everyone's doing it for the right motivation.

We're obviously keen on taking on people who are keen to help save lives but because of the various skills you develop in learning negotiation, a lot of them think it may be good for other peripheral things like promotion.

Despite what you might see in the movies, we always operate as a team rather than as individuals. I tend to get called out for the more serious, complicated negotiations. We've got 84 negotiators and they're all part-time volunteers. They do their day-to-day work and they actually get called out if anything happens.

It is rewarding work. Obviously the person threatening to commit suicide will make the final decision - but there's a lot we can do to try to dissuade them and we succeed most of the time. I don't keep statistics, but anecdotally I can say we're fairly successful most of the time.

I would say on average we get 10 to 20 cases a month, which is a pretty significant number. When I talk to my overseas counterparts they are getting 10 or less, and they have a lot less people available to turn out as well. We are not doing too badly. We would like a full-time unit given the chance - but that's not going to be on the cards anytime soon.

For my counterparts overseas, situations are very different. For example, in the US they have a lot of suicide-related issues with people on drugs which, for us, is not so much of a problem. People have emotional issues but they are not necessarily high on drugs.

A lot of the cases we deal with involve barricaded subjects - people who have locked themselves inside their premises. Sometimes they have family members with them, sometimes they don't. It's a bit of a mix between those sort of cases and cases involving people on rooftops. We fortunately don't get too many very serious cases involving bank robbery hostages.

We try to avoid negotiators going out on ledges because the safety issues are fairly significant. A lot of the time people threatening to jump do not intend to. But it might be an old air conditioner that slips away beneath their weight when they've been standing out for too long. Or, they get cramp and fall down.

If the person is still there when we arrive, there is definitely room for manoeuvre. We work with them to come up with some solutions to their problems and discourage and dissuade them from what they intend to do.

We are very definitely always looking for the right people to do this work. We do screening tests and role-playing situations that will put them under stress. We test their empathy skills and rapport-building skills - all key requirements of a good negotiator.

Obviously we don't want someone who loses their temper too quickly or isn't particularly good at dealing with other people.

Interestingly, one of the skills we are looking for most of all is someone who is a good listener rather than a good talker. Everybody presumes you have to be a good speaker. In reality, of course, you want the other person to do most of the talking.'