When Richmond County sheriff’s Investigator Scot Herring tried out for the department’s hostage negotiating team three years ago, he had to get on the phone with no training and broker a fake crisis.
He had to show whether he had the right temperament, tone and nonconfrontational attitude to move on to training.
In hostage negotiation, demeanor can be the difference between life and death.
Herring showed he had the qualities to be a hostage negotiator and is one of six at the sheriff’s office who travel to crisis situations in Richmond and surrounding counties about three to five times a year.
Everyone on the team took the negotiator position on a volunteer basis and receives no extra pay.
The most recent hostage situation was at Butler Creek Trailer Park on March 1 when a man entered the residence of his ex-girlfriend and handcuffed her to the bed.
“It took negotiators three minutes on the phone,” Herring said, “but we’re prepared to go as long as it takes.”
During training, officers learn that unless an immediate threat is present, time is on their side. They also focus on psychology, mental illness and suicide, common factors in hostage situations.
Although suicidal suspects are harder to handle, Herring said it’s important to determine early on if the suspect is serious or if it’s a cry for help.
Investigator Tim Owen, an assistant team leader, said there’s a misconception about the job from people who see portrayals only on television.
“Most people think when you get called out there’s an argument back and forth about demands. It’s not anything like that,” said Owen, who has 10 years’ experience on the team.
When the team is deployed, each person takes a job: negotiator, negotiator’s coach, team leader, scribe or intelligence officer.
Negotiations are typically done over the phone but can be done through a wall. If the suspect doesn’t have a phone, the tactical team will send a phone encased in a hard box.
The intelligence officer job is one of the most critical, Herring said. That person must learn as much about the suspect and victims as possible. When they determine what’s important to the suspect, they’ll know how to build a rapport with him.
“The whole process is about building trust with that person and showing that you are there to help them,” Owen said.
The negotiators all said that one of their most challenging cases was Christmas Day 2008 on Sunny Day Road.
What began as a lover’s quarrel ended with Georgette Reid holding a knife to the neck of her girlfriend’s 5-year-old son.
For several hours negotiators spoke to the woman, but when the situation continued to worsen, negotiators sent in the tactical team, who shot Reid in the shoulder and recovered the boy.
“I really felt like the whole time we were talking to her she was trying to aggravate the situation to get us to give her the courage to go through with it,” Owen said.