How the police negotiating team uses wits and compassion to save lives

Police negotiators use their wits and compassion to save lives, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 9:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 9:52am

Police work can be dangerous, often carried out under difficult and unpredictable conditions. But for a special squad within the force, whose task is to save the desperate, the pressure may be the most extreme.

Gilbert Wong Kwong-hing, a member of the 69-member police negotiation team, says rescuing people on the brink of killing themselves is like being a commando.

"It's like serving in the Special Duties Unit. It's just that their challenges are physical by nature, whereas ours are mental. People can jump to their death right in front of our eyes. These life-and-death encounters can put us under a lot of mental strain," he says.

As the case of a J.P. Morgan banker who leapt from the company's Central headquarters in February illustrates, it's a tough job, and negotiators' efforts don't always succeed.

Membership of the Police Negotiation Cadre, which was set up in 1975, is voluntary and team members can be on call around the clock. The unit holds a recruitment exercise every two years, with about 200 applicants vying for 15 spots. Officers who are accepted as negotiators do so as a secondary duty in addition to their primary role in the force.

Wong, senior superintendent with the Service Quality Wing, joined the force in 1993. Six years later, he joined the Police Negotiation Cadre, where he is now a commanding officer. The psychology major enjoys helping others and talking with people from all walks of life.

Of the 200 attempted suicide cases he has handled, several have left an indelible impression.

"There was a thirty-something woman with a four-year-old daughter living in a public housing estate, where her boyfriend and husband also lived," he says. "They both dumped her after her infidelity came to light. The whole estate knew about it and she felt ashamed. She was determined to kill herself because she called her mother beforehand to make arrangements for the care of her little girl."

Three male negotiators spent hours trying to calm her down without much success.So a female officer was called to the scene, and she managed to talk the distraught woman out of immediate self-harm.

"[The female officer] told the woman, 'You are beautiful, you will surely find a guy who will love you in the future, just as I have found one," Wong recalls. "The woman's eyes lit up, she came to her senses and hugged the female officer."

Wong says the key to dealing with distraught people who are threatening to commit suicide is to find the hook that can strengthen their hold on life, no matter how tenuous it is.

"We need to identify their unfulfilled wishes. It can be about their baby or pet, which would be left abandoned if they go. We need to give them hope, like the female officer did."

Intelligence-led negotiations help identify these hooks quickly, Wong says.

"We require the beat policemen who are first responders on the spot to get phone numbers of the suicide subject's family members. We are already calling the families on the way to the scene."

It's crucial to find out why a subject wants to end their life, Wong says, and why at that particular time and place. If the subject has attempted suicide before, or has a psychological illness, negotiators contact social workers or hospital psychologists for more information that could be used in preventing tragedy.

"We need to have the big picture of the subject. We need to know how long ago he stopped taking medication, what effects this will have on his state of mind and what triggered his emotional outbursts," Wong says.

Negotiators must also learn how to handle the sometimes tricky demands made by the suicidal. Wong recalls negotiating with a burglar who found himself stuck on bamboo scaffolding after robbing flats. "He had all the loot with him and threatened to jump. He demanded that we not arrest and sue him. I spent half an hour explaining to him that it's the Department of Justice that decides whether to sue a person, and that the police only collect and present evidence."

Sindy Chan Sau-yuk, senior inspector of the Complaints Against Police Office and second-in-charge with the police negotiation team, says protocol dictates that officers cannot lie to victims because negotiation is based on trust.

"There's no way we can accede to requests then talk the subject down and later renege on our word," says Chan, who joined the team in 2001. "According to international protocol, negotiating officers cannot accede to requests just to defuse a crisis."

Although negotiators appear to call the shots at the scene, Wong says they need to report requests made by suicide subjects to the district or division commander present.

"For example, if a man wants a beer or cigarette, I need to get approval because those substances might affect the outcome of negotiations."

But commanders do not have as much on-the-ground experience as negotiating officers and do not understand the dynamics of negotiation, Wong says. This only adds to the pressure on negotiators.

"There might be a suicide subject threatening to jump from a building on [a busy road], causing serious traffic congestion. The commander will be under stress to defuse the situation. So we negotiators are faced with pressure from both sides - our superior and the suicide subject. We need a lot of mental prowess to handle that."

Depending on the person's mental state, negotiations can take half an hour or more than a day. "The longest case I have handled involved a woman worker who went onto the observation deck at the racecourse in Sha Tin after being fired. She didn't sleep, eat or go to the toilet for 36 hours," Wong says.

Because of the job's demands, negotiators are split into four teams, each with an eight-day standby shift.

Recruitment screening takes a day and involves interviews, a psychological test and mock sessions where experienced negotiating officers play suicide subjects. Successful candidates have to complete two weeks of residential training.

"For the first six months after joining the team, a rookie officer has to shadow a veteran officer. After six months, he'll get a licence that is subject to renewal every two years," Wong says.

Of the 80 to 100 cases the team handles a year, 99 per cent involve suicide cases. They have a success rate of 81 per cent.

"We no longer have bank robberies like in the past, where we needed to negotiate with hostage-takers. The remaining 1 per cent are cases involving domestic violence, for example, a wife threatening her husband with a chopper," Wong says.

According to the latest figures from the Coroner's Court, 845 people in the city committed suicide in 2012 - 527 men and 318 women.

"A third of suicide cases are people who are depressed, and more than 30 per cent have a history of psychological illness. Factors driving people to the brink include broken romances, chronic illness and financial troubles. People are more likely to die if they have attempted suicide before," Wong says.

A failed negotiating attempt, however, can devastate officers, Chan says.

"Imagine talking to the subject for five or six hours, only for he or she to jump," she says. "Though we must maintain our composure on the spot, we might end up hugging [other officers] and crying afterwards."

In the event of a failed negotiation, officers are given psychological debriefing sessions to assess their mental state, she says. For the more serious cases, a clinical psychologist will be called in.

"While we're saving other people, we also pay much attention to the psychological health of our own colleagues," Chan says.