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Live Mic: How police negotiations can help de-escalate tense situations

In this image from video provided by WBFO, a Buffalo police officer appears to shove a man who walked up to police Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Buffalo, N.Y. Police in Utah are talking about how they de-escalate tense situations by trying to lower emotions and talk to the people involved. (Mike Desmond/WBFO via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — During a time of national protests against police brutality after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of law enforcement officers, a tense situation involving police and an armed suspect ended in peace.

According to police, an armed, suicidal, robbery suspect in Murray surrendered to officers early Friday after more than an hour of talking. Police said Ian Michael Long, 21, fired a round into the air and aimed a weapon at officers at one point. However, no one was injured, and the transgender woman was taken into custody without further incident.

“The result of the event was better than could be asked for,” Murray police Detective Kenny Bass told the Deseret News at the time. “If we can do that every call, that’s our goal.”

Stall and buy time

Mark Lowther, a former chief of the Weber Police Department and member of the SWAT team, joined Lee Lonsberry on Live Mic to discuss the tactics police use to de-escalate potentially violent and even deadly situations. That includes situations in which a suspect is holding innocent people hostage.

“As someone who has experienced circumstances like this, what thoughts are top of mind?” Lee asked.

“Someone considering taking their life might be quite willing to injure you,” Lowther said.

He added that suicide-by-cop is a factor officers have to be on high alert for on every call they respond to. 

“When negotiations ensue, what are the tactics that police are taught?” Lee asked.

“When possible, we want to stall and buy time,” he said. 

Lower emotions

He said Hollywood portrays police negotiations as a lone effort by a single officer, but in actuality it’s a team effort. He said one person is talking directly with the suspect while another is coaching the negotiator and still others behind the scene are gathering information or intel about the suspect while negotiations proceed.

“Who is this person? Why are they doing what they’re doing? What is their background? Do they have a history of violence? What’s led up to this incident today?” he said.

“What’s the pathway that you’d ultimately like to lead these suspects toward a peaceful end?” Lee asked.

“What we’re trying to do is lower emotions. Whether it’s a barricaded bank robber holding hostages or suicidal person with a weapon standing on a bridge, in many cases emotions are elevated,” Lowther said. “Whenever emotions are high, our rational decision-making is low.”

Lowther added that in suicidal situations, suspects might have been dwelling on taking their own life for a long time or it can be a spontaneous reaction to a crisis in their life.

“We kind of try to problem solve with them. You view dying today as your only alternative but have you considered this or this?” said Lowther. “We try to get their mindset in that instead of the emotional mindset of taking their life.”

The technology of police negotiations

“Has technology and cellphones and videos and stuff like that changed how you bring about a peaceful negotiation?” Lee asked.

He said when he first became a negotiator, everyone had a landline but few had a cellphone. Of course, today it’s just the opposite.

“In some cases the technology benefits us. We don’t have to worry about bringing our own phone in. In many cases, the subject already has a phone. But then we have to deal with: Is that person going to talk to us or ignore us and continue to call relatives, friends, family, stuff like that,” Lowther said.

He said with a landline, negotiators could shut it down so the suspect could talk only with the police. He added the same can be done with a cellphone, but police have to work with the cellphone carrier, which can take time.


Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry can be heard weekdays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app.