Members of the Hays County Crisis Negotiation Team recently took part in the 32nd Annual Crisis Negotiation Competition and Seminar at Texas State. Whether rookies or long-time team members, the event offers a chance to enhance and improve negotiation, communication and team-building skills.
This year, the Hays County Crisis Negotiation Team, comprised of law enforcement officers from Hays County Sheriff’s Office, San Marcos Police and Kyle Police, took second place in the competition.
“We worked well as a team and were able to resolve the situation without further incident,” said team leader Danny Lombardo with Hays County Sheriff’s Office.
The competition draws in law enforcement agencies from across the state and around the country. Created and hosted by Texas State Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Wayman Mullins (now retired), the competition is designed to be as close to real-world scenarios as possible.
University graduate students in the criminal justice program play the role of the perpetrators during the competition. This year, HCSO Lt. Dennis Gutierrez was a judge for a statewide team out of Pennsylvania as well as the Harker Heights PD.
Hays County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jennifer Baker, known to most as JB, said the skills she’s developed in crisis negotiation are the same ones she uses in other law enforcement situations and just regular life.
“The competitions in particular, but also the overall training, help me be a better investigator,” she said during the team’s lunch break. “I’ve learned to slow down and listen.”
Baker said the training aids her in having improved communication skills, which is useful in every relationship from professional to personal.
She added that during her roughly eight years on the crisis negotiation team (she’s been with HCSO for 20), she’s learned that people just want to be heard.
“Everyone wants to be listened to and have their viewpoint understood,” she said.
When she’s the primary, i.e., the person who makes contact with the individual(s) involved in the issue, she said she aims to understand what they really want.
“I ask, ‘Tell me why we’re here and what can we do to help’,” she said.
Baker has been part of the team for four hostage type events. But she said the skills she learned have been valuable in more than 50 other situations and interactions with the public.
What skills are most valuable for crisis negotiations?
“Listening, empathy, remaining calm under pressure and working well with your team,” she said.
It truly is a team effort. While the primary maintains contact and attempts to draw out details about what’s happening with the victims and perpetrators, the rest of the team works to research leads, contact outside entities and officials, and provide the primary with ideas and advice on how to tease out the information.
During the Texas State competition, Baker was one of the researchers. She would feed info to the primary, San Marcos Police Department Officer Nate Waters. Meanwhile, she and other team members were updating the white board behind them with various details about the situation. Baker said a new phone system allows team members to send messages to each other in real time, whereas in the past, they used sticky notes.
“We used to have little sticky notes everywhere,” she said. “So this is much better.”
The competition scenarios often draw on events that are relevant and timely. This year’s scenario for the Hays County/SMPD team revolved around individuals who were upset about everything from COVID to Black Lives Matter to politics. As the scene unfolded, the team learned that the perpetrators wanted vaccine and mask mandates across the state. They said anyone who wasn’t vaccinated shouldn’t be allowed to be employed. They also wanted Governor Abbott to resign and several political candidates to drop out of the race for Attorney General. Other issues included being upset at “white supremists” and that people should support the BLM movement. One of their demands was that masks be required at all schools.
The group of perpetrators were holding 10 people hostage including a state senator (a made-up character named Mike Summers), at the Republican Party Headquarters. Through talking with the perpetrators, the primary learned that several victims had medical or health issues.
He repeatedly asked if any of those people could be released because of their medical conditions. He was repeatedly told ‘not yet.’
During a debrief before lunch, one of the judges told the Hays County/SMPD team that they should work on active listening skills, personalizing the names of victims and repeating or clarifying what was said. He told the team, “This is why we do the training – this is how you learn.” He advocated for being able to adapt and improvise.
Baker and other team members said they agreed with the judge’s assessment. They regrouped during lunch to discuss new tactics and strategies for peaceful resolution to the problem. Whatever they did worked because they came in second overall among their law enforcement peers in the competition!
The Hays County Crisis Negotiation Team:
Jennifer Baker (JB), Detective, HCSO
Garrett Dominguez, Deputy, HCSO
Danny Lombardo, Deputy, HCSO
Erin Barker, Mental Health Liaison, HCSO
Don Lee, Corporal, San Marcos PD
Nate Waters, Mental Health Officer, Kyle PD
Roya Williamson, Crime Victims Liaison, San Marcos PD