SWAT crisis negotiators ditch ammo for intel

Members of Central Texas Regional SWAT participate in a crisis negotiation training exercise on Jan. 10, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)
Members of Central Texas Regional SWAT participate in a crisis negotiation training exercise on Jan. 10, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

MAXWELL, Texas (KXAN) — Dozens of SWAT officers from around the world are meeting in Central Texas to train and compete, but this type of training does not look like what many people expect when they hear “SWAT.”

This week’s competition focuses on hostage negotiation, working to resolve scenarios before they turn volatile.

The crisis negotiators do not use tactical weapons, instead, they focus on making contact with suspects and victims involved in dangerous situations.

Each member has a specific role. One or two people interact with the suspect, while another transcribes the conversations. Other members handle additional research, intelligence and document important information on paper hanging on the walls.

Members of Central Texas Regional SWAT participate in a crisis negotiation training exercise on Jan. 10, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)
Members of Central Texas Regional SWAT participate in a crisis negotiation training exercise on Jan. 10, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

Unlike the menacing presence of heavy artillery, weapons drawn, large vehicles and body armor, crisis negotiators work in a quiet space in generally tight quarters.

“It’s controlled chaos,” Cedar Park Police Lt. Chanse Thomas said. Thomas is a member of Central Texas Regional SWAT, a group that includes Cedar Park police, Georgetown police, and Leander police.

“Most of the time… you see the weapons and the armor, but the negotiators are the ones who are actually moving that situation along,” Thomas said, explaining that many civilians think nothing is happening because the officers they can see on scene are not being active.

Inside the mobile command center, or a room nearby, negotiators work to keep situations calm, with the hope that SWAT officers do not have to engage. Thomas said sending SWAT in is a “last resort.”

“It’s absolutely a thinking person’s game,” Thomas added. We’re trying to identify why this person is doing what they’re doing, and try to establish ways that we can convince them to safely come out,” with an ultimate goal to save the lives of everyone involved.

Thomas said the training exercise serves as a good opportunity to build rapport with each other and learn new methods for deescalation. Factors such as mental health, political or personal motivations, and other reasoning tactics are considered as well.

“I put the importance of the negotiation side at the same level, if not higher, than the tactical guys, because they’re the ones that really communicate with this person and influence whether or not the situation ends peacefully,” Thomas mentioned.

A member of Central Texas Regional SWAT talks with a "suspect" during a crisis negotiation training exercise on Jan. 10, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)
A member of Central Texas Regional SWAT talks with a “suspect” during a crisis negotiation training exercise on Jan. 10, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

The negotiation is a high-stress test of endurance, intelligence and speed. Thomas said the partnership between the three agencies in Central Texas Regional SWAT serves as an important reminder about keeping healthy relationships from department to department.

“A situation needing a negotiations team can happen in any jurisdiction, in any city, in any county, even all the way up to the federal level,” Thomas explained. So, at the end of the day, regardless of the name across your chest, or the badge that you wear, the job is the same, and that is working together, learning about these people, trying to save their life, and end a bad situation without violence.”

The event is held at Texas State University’s ALERRT training facility. The competition organizer, Dr. Wayman Mullins, has served in law enforcement in Hays County for more than two decades.

Mullins said 28 teams competing this year are from places like California, Oregon, Florida and even Singapore, in addition to Texas. Local police departments and sheriff’s offices are competing, as well as state and federal agencies. The competition is in its 28th year. Winners of the competition are announced Thursday night at a banquet.

Central Texas Regional SWAT badge. (KXAN Photo/Wes Rapaport)
Central Texas Regional SWAT badge. (KXAN Photo/Wes Rapaport)

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