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Defusing dangerous situations: How TPD's Hostage Negotiators answer crisis calls

Sgt. Ericka Stropka stands inside the Hostage Negotiations Team's command post, called "The Knock"
Posted at 9:48 AM, Sep 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-30 14:27:00-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — When someone is in crisis and a potential threat to themselves or others, the Tucson Police Department’s Hostage Crisis Negotiation team gets the call.

“When we get a person to actually come out without us using any use of force, we consider that one of the greatest things,” said Sgt. Ericka Stropka, a TPD negotiator for more than 10 years and now a supervisor with the team. “Like, that’s a win for us. That’s our ultimate goal.”

Stropka says a negotiator must be able to balance a delicate situation.

“We really have to meet people with a sense of human-ness,” she explained. “We’re not really there trying to be like ‘Who, what, when, why and where?’ That traditional cop.”

The team receives about 30 calls a year responding to barricade situations, where someone is potentially looking to harm themselves or others. Each lasts about 4 hours on average, but they can go much longer.

Often full city blocks are shut down in response to a barricade situation to ensure neighbors’ safety. Stropka says some people have barricaded themselves inside sheds or cars, with one even doing so in a pool.

Ideally, Stropka says, each call includes about 12 negotiators. Some can communicate through a PA system, while others look for information to assist the primary negotiator with speaking to the person in distress. A secondary negotiator often acts as a coach for the primary negotiator.

“Sometimes the primary, you’re getting overwhelmed with a lot of information,” Stropka said. “Your secondary really helps you to just maintain some calmness about all the information coming on.”

The team uses a “throw phone” in a box that they deliver to the person who is barricaded, and then speak to that person on the other end of the call inside a mobile command center known as “The Knock.”

Officers looking to join the team must be with TPD for at least three years and then go through a lengthy vetting process. Then negotiators train once a month for 10 hours.

Training includes practicing situations and incident debriefs, as well as outside speakers coming in. Experts will explain the effects of certain drugs or mental illnesses, so negotiators can be more patient and prepared on the job.

“My intro is: My name is Ericka. I’m here to help you. How are you? What’s going on?” Stropka said. “We tend to ask an open-ended question right off the bat because we want the person to feel like they can answer any way they want. And that really starts that process of venting.”

Stropka says the key to easing tensions is active listening.

“We’re listening for the emotion underlying what they’re saying,” she explained. “And we’ll just identify it: ‘You sound frustrated.’ And then we don’t say anything else. The best negotiators are people who listen more than they talk.

“We want them to see them to see that we actually wanna understand what they’re going through. Because we care.”

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