News Detail

Police learn crisis phone line more difficult than in-person

  March 30, 2013.

HAMMOND — Trying to get police officers to grasp the nuances between in-person crisis negotiation and crisis negotiation by telephone wasn’t hard for Willie P. Perry, but it was fascinating.

Perry, program coordinator for the Crisis Center of Gary’s crisis and suicide prevention line, watched with pride Thursday afternoon as the Hammond Police Department’s Crisis Negotiation Team officially launched its new program that incorporates the hotline into its training. Once a month, the eight-man team, used to settling hostage and other potentially violent situations, will now use their first-responder duties in profoundly different ways simultaneously.

By shortly after 1 p.m., the officers were on their second call.

“How’re you feeling?” one of the officers asked the caller, a woman despondent over her husband’s death. “You’re very special for treating him the way you did. It’s hard to lose somebody, but now, you have to concentrate on taking care of you, too.”

The similarities between the two disciplines came to Sgt. Steve Kellogg, the department’s crisis negotiation trainer, two years ago around the holidays. He’d seen either a billboard or commercial for a suicide-prevention hotline and thought it would be interesting for the team to volunteer. Perry, the hotline’s coordinator for 30 years, agreed and got the men trained in suicide assessment.

The team spent a whole day at the Crisis Center and loved the experience, Kellogg said, so they asked to do it again during this past Christmas. Then Kellogg had an even better idea.

“I asked Willie if we could patch phone calls in to us during our training,” Kellogg said. “She worked on it from her end, and we approached the chief (Hammond Police Chief Brian Miller), who said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ ”

Hammond’s training, set up very much like it would be during a live crisis situation, has the men working in teams of four for each call. One is the primary, who speaks to the caller, while two others listen in and write down suggestions of what to say for the primary. The fourth officer mans the dry erase board, writing down the basics of the call for the whole team.

Its set up is considerably different from the hotline’s, which sees calls primarily from Northwest Indiana, but they can come from all over the state and even the country, according to Perry.

“When you’re on the phone, you’re a team of one,” Perry said. “We do have staff to debrief with after a call or shift if volunteers need it, but otherwise, it’s just you.”

The team will go through its regular training, Kellogg said, but once the phone rings, they stop and work the call. On its first day, the team received nine calls in three hours.

While the end game is exactly the same — diffusing a crisis situation and making sure the person on the other end is safe and secure — getting there calls upon skills the officers aren’t used to using. When they’re on the scene, the officers are able to see what’s going on and use their authority to resolve it, Perry said.

On a crisis call, the officers are anonymous, so authority is the last thing anyone considers.

“You’re using your ears for your eyes,” she said. “I can’t see you on the ledge when we’re on the phone, so I’m using my coping skills and understanding to help them off.”

That’s been a little disconcerting for Kellogg, who’s found the training stressful at times.

“In the street, we’re resolving a situation that day because it’s dangerous,” he said. “(With the calls), we have to allow the person to hang up whenever they choose, so you don’t know what the outcome is. It’s not easy at all.

“We get more cooperation (from the callers), but once they end the call, all you can say is, ‘Promise me you’re OK for now.’ ”

That cooperation makes it easier, as far as Cpl. Eby Gonzalez, the Crisis Negotiation Team Leader, is concerned.

“In the real world, we’re the police, but here, we’re listeners,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s a bit more comfortable because they’re reaching out to us.”

Miller said the training is invaluable for real-life negotiations and a good chance for the department to do something good for the community, both Hammond and beyond.

In a time where calls to the crisis prevention line have increased, Perry is grateful for the department’s effort and lauded it as “innovative.”

“I am thrilled about knowing there’s a crisis negotiator on the other end for callers,” Perry said. “(The hotline) is truly Ground Zero for a lot of pain and suffering, and these guys really care.”