Desperate Measures

Deputy Brian Burton

Deputy Brian Burton

Negotiation is a high-stakes game of give and take for law enforcement professionals, with no guarantee of a happy ending.

Written by Tom Gordon

Photography by Beau Gustafson


To negotiate is “to confer with another so as to arrive at the settlement of some matter.”

So says an entry in Merriam-Webster’s online edition.

For some Birmingham area law enforcement officers, negotiating is not about exchanging points of view in a climate-controlled setting across a mahogany conference table between sips of bottled water and power point presentations.

These officers can find themselves, at short notice, standing outside a locked door in a wreck of a home, atop a roof on a warm morning, or alongside a bridge on a sub-freezing night. They have had little or no time to prepare, don’t have a thick briefing book and they haven’t even met their opposite number.  In fact, they may not even see them until the very end.

Getting to that end may take hours, or days, and it only comes when these officers help  someone decide not to kill themselves or do harm to someone else, and put down their gun, open that door, come down the ladder from that roof or not jump from that bridge.

“To help them save face—that’s what it’s all about,” said Jefferson County Sheriff’s Dept. Sgt. Jake Money, one of the leaders of the department’s 10–member team of negotiators.  “You’ve got to help them, because at the point where they’re ready to come out, they realize how they carried this way too far, okay, and at that point, you’ve got to help them save face.”

“Most of these folks are looking for a way out of the situation that they’re in,” said Deputy Brian Burton, an 11-year member of the team. “You’ve just got to be able to formulate a plan that gives them a way out that’s realistic.”

At one time or another, just about any law enforcement officer will be negotiating with someone about something.

“When  you talk somebody into letting you search their car when they have no reason to do that,  you’ve done a negotiation…” Burton said. “It happens every day, all the time, you know.”

But incidents that require formally designated negotiators usually involve a lot more than a car search, and that’s why the county has a crisis negotiation team. The team members not only have the people skills critical to defusing a volatile situation, they also have attended FBI-certified negotiation classes.  They come in when a crisis is going to take some time to resolve, but others who are not part of the team can find themselves in unexpected, fast-developing situations where things they say or do can save lives, or jeopardize them.

Last February, hostage situations in the southwest Alabama town of Midland City and in the Shelby County city of Chelsea illustrated both scenarios.

The first incident gained national attention for days. After a 65-year-old man named Jimmy Lee Dykes shot and killed a bus driver in Midland City and a took a 5-year-old boy hostage, specially trained FBI negotiators tried for about a week to get Dykes to surrender and release the boy. Ultimately, a rescue team charged into Dykes’ bunker, killed Dykes and rescued his hostage.

About a week later, after a gunman entered a middle school in Chelsea and took some students hostage, a Shelby County sheriff’s deputy talked him into giving up his weapon and releasing the children. The deputy, David Morrow, was the school resource officer and was not a member of Shelby County Sheriff’s Department’s own negotiating team. But Sgt. Russell Bedsole, a team member, said Morrow has the skills to be on the squad.

Sgt. Jake Money

Sgt. Jake Money

Jefferson County sheriff’s negotiators were not involved in either Midland City or Chelsea, but they were watching the situations unfold. When each episode ended, they felt they had an inkling of why they had turned out the way they did.

In Midland City, Money said, the negotiators never had “constant communication”  with Dykes because he was not allowing it.

“Otherwise, it wouldn’t have lasted that long,” Money said, “and it likely wouldn’t have ended the way it did.”

In Chelsea, Morrow apparently was able to keep the hostage taker engaged in a conversation, and Money called that the “biggest goal that we have in negotiations.

“As long as they’re talking, we’re making headway, you know what I’m saying? And it doesn’t matter what they’re talking about.”

Any large law enforcement agency is going to have some negotiators, but high profile standoffs such as the one with Jimmy Lee Dykes in Midland City are not what they usually are called upon to handle.

The most common situations involve someone, usually a man, who may need a hospital room and not a jail cell. Depressed or said to be suicidal, he locks himself in his home, has a loaded weapon or dramatizes his problem in a more public way such as walking out on a ledge. Sometimes the situation stems from a long-running domestic dispute. Hostages aren’t usually involved either, although the person behind the standoff may be hostage to an uncontrollable temper, a bottle of booze or a mental illness for which he has refused to take his meds.

“My very first call out, ever, very simply was a guy who had stabbed himself because he said he wanted to die,” Money said. “He said he had a gun also so the negotiations happened through the bathroom door because we couldn’t go in cause we thought he had a gun.” Money’s goal, all along, was to get the man some medical attention. After nearly two hours, he said, the man “allowed medics to attend to him.”

When they come to a crisis, negotiators don’t bring a one–size–fits–all formula for defusing it, since no crisis is the same.  But some basics are always in their approach. They have to be willing to stick it out for hours, or even longer, even if they are outdoors and the weather is not their ally.  They must come with a passel of patience, an internalized instinct to not pass judgment on the person whom they are trying to disarm or simply calm down, and a willingness to listen, more than once, to whatever story that person wants them to hear. They also better be willing to take a bunch of verbal abuse because that’s a way to keep the person talking and get them moving to where they start looking for a peaceful way out.

“I wouldn’t say it’s something that you really just learn,” said team member and deputy Mary Winston, who was part of the Birmingham Police Department’s negotiating team for 14 years. “You have to be able to talk to people and try to gain their trust. Everybody can’t do it, let me put it like that.”

“Everybody’s not willing to stand out in 28-degree weather and talk to a guy that won’t talk to you for two hours,” Burton said. “They’re not willing to stand and talk to a guy through a door that may or may not talk to you.”

“You’ve just got to be laid back – patient, patient, patient, patient, ” said Gary Marbutt, the sheriff’s department’s senior deputy and its senior crisis negotiator. “If it doesn’t go your way, you’re just going to have to wait and try something different, and go from there on it.”

“There’s a lot of pressure when you’re talking to somebody and you’ve kinda gotta hide that,” said Sgt. Joni Money, another team member who happens to be married to Jake Money.

“You don’t tell them that you understand their situation because you don’t, because you haven’t been in that situation,” Burton said. “You don’t tell them that you understand how they feel because…you can’t understand how they feel unless you’ve walked in their shoes. When you tell them that, they’re all going to give you the same response. They’re going to cook off, and they’re going to be mad (and say), ‘You don’t understand me, you don’t know me; you don’t know where I’ve been.’”

At that point, Jake Money said a negotiator can respond by saying, “’But that’s why I’m here. I want to do my best to try to understand.’”

Mary Winston

Mary Winston

The makeup of the crisis negotiation team reflects the diversity of the Jefferson County’s population as well as some of the skills that team members can bring to different situations.

Three of the team members are female, one of whom is black. The seven males include a black deputy as well as an Hispanic officer. All of them have regularly assigned duties because they are not needed to negotiate every day.

Deputy Rudy Aguilar, the team’s  Spanish-speaking member, works at the county jail. Jake Money is a property crimes investigator, and Joni Money heads the department’s warrant division. Marbutt and Burton, and deputies John Pickens and Nathan Nichols, usually spend their workdays on patrol. Jeannie Miller and Ronny Short are detectives—Miller in youth services and Short in the sex offender unit—while Mary Winston, the team’s black female, is a school resource officer.

“She negotiates there every day,” Joni Money said, eliciting a laugh from Winston.

“Everybody has a different style, and that’s what makes each of us so important to the team because everybody has something different to offer,” Joni Money said. “Me, I have a sales background…and I’ve taken numerous sales classes, and I find sales classes and the techniques that are taught to salesmen to be very similar to techniques that you use in negotiations.”

Each of the team members has been doing negotiations long enough to collect stories. But they don’t have that many to tell. Joni Money says that’s because most of the potential situations get resolved by other officers, usually those on patrol, who are the first to arrive on the scene.

“Everybody has the opportunity to do what we do, every time that they’re on call,” she said. But if things reach the point where officers answering a call determine that they’re not going to be able to resolve the situation, their shift sergeant will ask for the team’s assistance, and whoever is closest to the scene and happens to be on duty will usually be the one to respond.

“And when they get there, they might decide that they need somebody else,” Joni Money said. “Cause you might run into somebody who doesn’t speak English, so that’s where Rudy’s called, you know. You might run into somebody who doesn’t want to talk to a female, or doesn’t want to talk to a male.”

And then a situation might be portrayed as one thing, when it’s something else altogether. Brian Burton said a few years back he was part of a supposed standoff in Brighton where a man with a gun had supposedly barricaded himself in an apartment.

“I talked to that guy for over an hour,” Burton recalled. But he never received a response. When officers broke into the apartment, there was no guy. Never had been.

More recently, Joni and Jake Money had a similar but longer experience in Adamsville. Word was that a man wanted by Mountain Brook police on a robbery charge was in a dwelling and wouldn’t come out.

“We negotiated—I don’t know—eight to 10 hours with an empty house,” Joni Money said. “They ended up blowing the doors off the house and sending a robot in, and there was nobody in there.”

Most of the time, of course, there is someone there, and if the situation is serious enough, negotiators have a number of tools at their disposal. Besides a bullhorn, a flak jacket and a pen and pad, they have a device they call a “throw phone” that they can literally throw through a window or open doorway.  A long spool of wire connects that phone to a receiver where the negotiator can converse with the person inside the building. Another negotiator, in the role of a coach, can also listen on that receiver, not usually to join the conversation, but to make helpful suggestions to his talking counterpart.

The hope, of course, is that two-way communication will lead to an outcome a lot less lethal than one dictated by, say, a SWAT sniper nestled nearby. But, as Jake Money said, “We’ve got to realize that whoever we’re negotiating with, that’s who’s in control.”

In other words, that person will decide if and when they are going to bring the situation to an end.

“Anybody who ever wants to actually commit suicide, hurt themselves, they’re going to do it,” Money said. “They’re going to do it without letting anybody know, maybe except for a note. There’s nothing that we can do about that.”

There’s nothing they can do either when someone is determined to go down swinging, or shooting. Mary Winston saw that firsthand when she was a Birmingham negotiator about nine years ago during a standoff with an armed, mentally troubled man at a house in West End. Winston said she and another negotiator took turns with a bullhorn, trying repeatedly to get the man to put the gun down and talk, but he did neither.

“He didn’t want to talk—period,” Winston said. Instead, according to an officer quoted in a newspaper report on the incident, the man “came out shooting.” Police fired back, and the man died.

Senior Deputy Gary Marbutt

Senior Deputy Gary Marbutt

Right up until the end, negotiators can’t tell what someone is going to do. Nor can they anticipate the sudden involvement of other people and events. Sometimes, family members show up and want a piece of the action and must be persuaded to keep their distance. Sometimes the negotiator may be talking on his throw phone, but the barricaded person to whom he is talking is also using a cell phone or getting riled by disruptive messages on his email account. Burton and another officer were once negotiating with an angry, inebriated and armed woman in Center Point who was behind a locked door when suddenly the woman’s temper flared, and she pulled the trigger on her pistol. The blast came through the door about a foot from Burton’s face.

Gary Marbutt had a situation on 9/11 where he and another deputy were in Fairfield with a man threatening to jump off a roof. A minister was counseling the man  as well, and he thought it would help if Marbut and his now-retired colleague, Norman Stewart, donned Miles College tee shirts. That  sartorial step might have helped, but not for long. Marbutt ended up tackling the man as he was running to the edge of the roof, and he found himself at the bottom of a small human pile consisting of both the man he had tackled and the 350-pound frame of the well-meaning minister.

Another time, on a cold night in Leeds, Burton spent about three hours in an ultimately successful effort to talk down a man whom St. Clair County officials wanted on criminal charges. The man was near a bridge over a creek in a park, a gun tied to his chin with the strings from his hoody.

“The guy wouldn’t say a word,” Burton said. “He wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t do anything. He would sit down. He would stand up. He would walk around in circles.”

Then a dog appeared. It barked, slipped and fell into the creek and got out, tried to shake itself dry and sprayed water on the man. He still wasn’t talking, but Burton thought that the more miserable the man was feeling in the cold, the more likely he was to give himself up. After Burton said something about getting him to a hospital, the man found his voice.

That long night yielded a mission-accomplished feeling of satisfaction—a feeling that got even better when Burton got back in a heated location—and that’s usually what negotiators get from what they do.

“We don’t have a pay incentive for this, whereas SWAT teams do,” Jake Money said. “Everybody that’s on our team is on our team because they want to be on our team, and…they all have their own fit.”

And a key to that fit is what Mary Winston said when she was describing herself.

“I have a very big listening ear,” she said.

Jake Money could not agree more.

“That’s everything right there,” he said.

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