Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In moments of high tension, SPD crisis negotiators offer a lifeline

Members of the Spokane Police Department's negotiation team pose for a photo from left: Sargent John Gately, Detective Marty Hill, Sargent Dan Waters, Officer Chris Kirn, Officer John O'Brien and PFC Mylissa Coleman pose for a photo on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, at next to their mobile command center in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Officer Chris Kirn was working patrol when the call came in: There’s a man on top of the Maple Street Bridge and he’s threatening to jump.

It was about 9:15 a.m. on a Thursday in October, cold but sunny. A slight wind. If not for the young man, thought to be in his 20s, clinging to the outside of the bridge’s tunnel-like chain-link fence, it could have been any other autumn day.

“When you hear those calls come out, it’s like, here we go,” Kirn said.

Kirn, a member of the Spokane Police Department’s Crisis Negotiation Team, was one of the first officers to arrive at the scene. Already, however, traffic to the bridge was being rerouted and a small crowd of observers had formed on the banks above in Kendall Yards.

The young man yelled at officers to back away, saying he’d jump if they did not. He was crying.

“I’m like, ‘OK,’ ” Kirn remembered. “I just asked, ‘Hey, can I call you on the phone?’ ”

“Sure,” the man replied.

With five years’ experience in Spokane and another five in Florida, this wasn’t Kirn’s first talk with a troubled man. As he explained recently alongside five other members of SPD’s Crisis Negotiation Team, establishing a line of communication is just one goal on a long list when dealing with such situations.

Sitting in their mobile command center – a renovated mobile home they bought at auction – the team recounted the day-to-day realities of a job that often entails long hours, stressful encounters and little fanfare. Like the work of structural engineers, things are expected to go right, and when they do, the work is often ignored or underappreciated.

Sgt. Dan Waters, a member of the team for 16 years, said incidents like the jumper on the bridge are just some of the many they handle. There are also SWAT situations, such as when a person refuses to exit their home, or negotiation incidents, where a gunman has taken hostages and refuses to cooperate – the kinds of encounters depicted over and over in television and movies.

Except the reality of the work is often nothing like the movies.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is of a single negotiator talking one-on-one, or maybe on the phone, and they’re that guy who talks forever and saves the day,” Waters said. “But it’s not like that. There’s a lot of people. And if there’s a big incident, we’re all gonna be there. And we’re gonna be busy.”

As was the case in October. While Kirn spoke to the man one-on-one, Officer John O’Brien was also on hand, feeding Kirn information about his surroundings: The bridge is blocked; his girlfriend is on the phone; his brother is here. All of those points may be used by the negotiator to persuade a peaceful resolution – the ultimate goal in any situation.

The man on the bridge was homeless, Kirn said, and was going through a breakup. He didn’t have a job and he felt worthless. He couldn’t see past that.

“We know there’s girlfriends after this,” Kirn told him. “It’s not the end of the world.”

The more Kirn talked, the farther up the fence and away from the edge of the drop the man crawled. He kept talking and kept crawling, heading north, until at last he reached a platform leading to the ground. There he remained for another tense hour before finally descending.

Officers escorted him away from the bridge’s edge, ushered in his friends and family, and the crisis was ended. O’Brien, meanwhile, had already opened up a dialogue with family members and Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners to find him temporary housing.

“In these incidents, you have a person who is not thinking clearly,” O’Brien said. “They’ve committed some kind of crime and they think there is no way out of that. It takes a lot to overcome that and get them to surrender.”

A resolution that doesn’t involve Tasers, shooting or suicide is about as good an ending as anyone on the team can hope to achieve, team members said.

But when things do go wrong, it can happen swiftly and without warning.

That was the case in 2007, when 28-year-old Joshua Levy leaped from the Monroe Street Bridge to his death.

Video and eyewitness accounts showed Levy, who had a history of mental illness that included leaping from bridges in the past, appeared finally ready to surrender to police after talking to negotiators, one of whom was Waters. After 20 hours, Levy hopped down onto the concrete from the bridge’s ledge.

Then something happened that was not part of the plan. Levy was hit by a Taser, which failed to incapacitate him. Instead, he turned and ran and leaped off the bridge. Firefighters below said he flapped his arms, as if trying to fly.

Levy’s family sued the department for $4.7 million in federal court three years later, contending police never consulted with a psychiatrist recommended by mental health professionals. A judge sided with the city in 2011.

Detective Marty Hill, a negotiator for five years, said regret isn’t a word in the team’s repertoire, but they do still have their demons.

“To have regret is something I don’t think we can open ourselves up to,” he said. “We don’t control their decision process. We try to give them options to steer them away.”

Of the 12-person team, most have been negotiating for more than five years. It’s a lengthy application and interview process to join, but once they’re in, they’re in.

Sgt. John Gatley, one of the most senior members, said that’s not by accident.

“We have folks who’ve been negotiators for 25 years,” he said. “Once people get on the team, they stay. And they just build that experience.”