Potential hostage negotiator team members go through rigorous training in the classroom as well as the field.

Potential hostage negotiator team members go through rigorous training in the classroom as well as the field. Lt. Del Higgerson and Capt. John McClellan watch as the potential negotiators test on the previous day’s materials.

Crisis Response Team element is specialized, highly trained

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

When an inmate climbs a building and threatens to jump to his death, as recently happened at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF), a little-known group of CDCR specialists are called into action.

Responding staff at CTF attempted to talk the man down, but he continued to threaten suicide. That’s when the Crisis Response Team (CRT) Hostage Negotiators element was activated.

“Negotiators responded to the area and initiated communication with the inmate. Utilizing active listening and crisis intervention techniques, after almost three hours of negotiating, the negotiators were successful and the inmate came off of the roof without further incident,” according to the Office of Correctional Safety (OCS).

The negotiators are a team of specialized, highly trained CDCR staff. It was coincidence the CTF incident was happening at the same time as another 20 potential team members (PTMs) were undertaking the two-week long certification course.

Offered by OCS, Emergency Operations Unit (EOU), the Negotiation Certification Course certifies negotiators for numerous CRTs across the state. There are 19 teams, each consisting of a tactical and negotiation element. There are 22 tactical operators in the tactical element, five negotiators in each Negotiation Element (with the exception of PBSP who has 27 tactical operators and seven negotiators) and a Crisis Response Team Commander (CRTC), according to Melissa Prill, CDCR’s negotiation coordinator.

The potential team members are selected following a try-out process. But their training actually begins earlier, before they even reach the certification phase.

“Each PTM receives extensive training in negotiations for a minimum of six months prior to attending the Negotiation Certification Course (NCC),” according to Prill.

  • The NCC is a 120+ hour course which includes physical, mental and scenario training over 13 days
  • All potential participants are required to complete a 1 mile run (12 min max), victim extraction drill (40 yards), weapons qualification course and pass an entry exam to be accepted to the course.
  • Over the 13 day NCC, the participants are taught and tested on 21 topics to include active listening, crisis intervention, roles and responsibilities and suicide assessment. The teaching includes classroom and practical application.
  • The second portion of the course consists of multiple full-length scenarios – with some lasting more than 16 hours – where the participants are required to apply the aspects of the classroom training while negotiating with experienced CRT negotiators as role players.
  • Upon successful completion of the course, the participants receive a certification as a hostage negotiator. Each certified negotiator is required to continue training on a monthly basis with their institutional CRT.

The last NCC was held recently at Camp San Luis Obispo where 20 negotiators were certified.  It was fitting since the graduation day – May 6, 2016 – happened to fall on the 10-year anniversary of a hostage incident at CSP-Sacramento. On the same day in 2006, an inmate with a knife took a female Correctional Officer hostage in a dining room. After more than seven hours of negotiations, the inmate released the officer unharmed.

Negotiator has 15 years of experience

Lt. Del Higgerson, with Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), knows the rigors or the course all too well.

Lt. Del Higgerson, Pelican Bay State Prison

Lt. Del Higgerson, Pelican Bay State Prison

“I’m one of the instructors at the academy. I’ve been involved (as a negotiator) for 15 years and I’ve been with CDCR for 20 years, all at PBSP.”

Lt. Higgerson started his CDCR career as a correctional officer and promoted to sergeant and finally to lieutenant.

“As far as the negotiation element, we’ve been called out many times. Our tactical team gets called out frequently for search warrants. My position on the team is negotiation leader,” he said. “We also get called out for escapes from our Level II and fire camps in the area.”

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Early in the morning, the team’s help was requested by an outside agency.

“The last time we were called out was this morning because the subject was barricaded with a gun. He was killed before we arrived,” he said. “I’m sure their negotiators feel bad and have a little guilt factor.”

According to Lt. Higgerson, PBSP is assigned seven negotiators because of the prison’s remote location. All other prisons are slotted for five negotiators.

He said the biggest support system for the team members are their spouses.

“My wife, whether it’s training or an actual call out, she’s always there for me and understands when someone needs our (CRT) help it might be untimely, due to a previously scheduled engagement,” he said.

According to Higgerson, the CRT negotiation team’s goal is simple, but sometimes difficult to achieve: “Our job is to get everybody else out safely.”

Regardless of the circumstances, he said violence is a last resort.

“We try to peacefully resolve either barricaded subjects, hostage situations or suicidal subjects. We try to do it without the tactical element until all else fails, unless it’s a non-negotiable incident and we give our tactical side a little more time. If our sniper shoots out a window, it’s hard to re-establish negotiations.”

He said talking things through is the best option.

What does it take to be a negotiator?

Early in the morning, potential negotiators utilize an “unconventional” Negotiation Operation Center (NOC) on the side of a truck.

Early in the morning, potential negotiators utilize an “unconventional” Negotiation Operation Center on the side of a truck.

For those interested in becoming hostage negotiators, the training can be brutal, particularly during the first-day tryout.

“The first day, you have to make the one-mile run under 12 minutes. You have to shoot the negotiator qualifier. You have a victim extraction drill. There are things you have to do make it in the front door,” he said. “We do about one class a year. We start around 23 people and end up with 16 or 17 because we lose quite a few people.”

If the potential negotiators make it in the front door, the training doesn’t get easier.

“Throughout both weeks, there are tests, physical training. We want to make sure they have the mettle to handle it and they have the wherewithal to get people out safely. We owe it to those taking the courses to turn out a good product,” Higgerson said. He credits Prill with recruiting top-notch instructors.

“There is a great group of instructors who have nearly 100 years of experience with negotiation. They all do it because they want to help. They don’t get extra money or extra benefits. Even when someone washes out or fails and someone doesn’t quite cut it for the two weeks, it feels like we failed. But really, it’s up to the individual to do what they need to do,” he said. “Melissa Prill has selected the right instructors. Her leadership is helping this course.”

He said those who want to get involved have already taken a big step by volunteering to be negotiators.

“The new potential negotiators are there because they want to be,” he said. “They are listening, taking notes and paying attention. I learn something from the other instructors and they learn something from me. There is camaraderie with the other instructors and that transfers over to the institution with the rest of the team, both tactical and negotiators.”

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All cadre and participants enjoyed an early morning hike up “eagle mountain” before the day’s instruction.