Manitoba

'Very tense and very stressful': Crisis negotiators play pivotal role in recent standoffs with police

A series of high-profile police standoffs in Winnipeg has shined a spotlight on an aspect of policing that often goes unseen.

Winnipeg Police Service’s crisis negotiation team involved in several high-profile calls in last 3 weeks

Members of the crisis negotiation unit were called to several major incidents recently, including this standoff at Bannerman Avenue and Salter Street on Wednesday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

A series of high-profile police standoffs in the city has shined a spotlight on an aspect of policing that often goes unseen.

The Winnipeg Police Service's crisis negotiation unit has dealt with several high-profile incidents over the past few weeks, including four armed and barricaded situations — two of those involving firearms.

"No two calls are going to be the same. Obviously, the deployment sort of ramps up your level of anxiety," said unit commander Staff Sgt. Sean Pollock.

"But once you're there, we get some intelligence about what's going on, we try to make contact with our subject and we work with them to come up with a peaceful resolution," he said.

A series of high-profile police standoffs in the city has shined a spotlight on an aspect of policing that often goes unseen. 2:34

Pollock has been in the crisis negotiation unit for seven years and leading it for the last two.

He was at a scene on Bannerman Avenue on Nov. 7 where a 16-year-old allegedly fired shots at police before surrendering. Canisters of gas were shot through windows to force the teen out of the home.

The 11-member crisis negotiation team is made up of a variety of officers assigned to various other units within the force, and is considered to be a part-time role because they never know when they will be called into action.

Staff Sgt. Sean Pollock is the co-ordinator for Winnipeg police's crisis negotiations unit, which has 11 members. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The unit is dispatched numerous times a year, but over the past three weeks a string of major incidents has kept the unit busy.

Pollock wouldn't say it's any busier than normal because when it comes to police work, there is no normal.

"The last little bit has been a little more higher profile than we are normally used to," he said.

"We tend to have spikes and valleys like almost anything else within policing."

On the same day as the Bannerman call, there was also another incident in the city's West End where two people briefly barricaded themselves inside a business they'd allegedly just robbed.

The week earlier police arrested several people after a 12-hour standoff in the Gilbert Park area.

The crisis negotiation team will often be working from a safe distance away from the scene to establish contact with suspects and help resolve situations peacefully. (John Einarson/CBC)

In late October, police dealt with a man armed with two knives who had locked himself inside a Pembina Avenue beer store for hours before they used non-lethal bullets to subdue him as he tried to flee.

All of the incidents were resolved without any serious injuries.

Words before weapons

Images of the recent events depict heavily-armed tactical officers with guns drawn, tense moments and, in one case, shots fired at police.

What you don't see is the team of officers, like Pollock, working from a safer distance and attempting to use words before weapons are needed.

"Really, you're just trying to establish communication. You're allowing that individual to express and vent," said Pollock.

"The call that you're attending, there's all kinds of things that have been simmering underneath it, so we do our best to try and figure out what those pieces are."

Those simmering emotions lead to high-stress situations for every officer involved.

The Bannerman incident saw about 100 officers respond, and nine of those were placed on administrative leave to deal with the stress, police said.

About 100 officers were involved in the hours-long standoff outside a home near Salter Street and Bannerman Avenue in the city's North End on Nov. 7, which saw police exchange gunfire with someone inside. (John Einarson/CBC )

"This is a very difficult event to process, both for our officers who were out there being shot at, as well as for people who were being told that they have to stay in their houses and in the basement," Const. Rob Carver said last week.

"Your life and lives of your colleagues beside you are at risk. Somebody's trying to kill you," Carver said.

Pollock said it's in those moments that officers rely heavily on their training.

"They're very tense and very stressful [situations]," he said.

"You generally don't recognize it as much in the moment because you fall back on your training, and you fall back on the team that surrounds you."

"But when the matter is done and you have a moment or two to decompress, you actually understand the physical and mental drain that it actually has on your body."

But when the matter is done and you have a moment or two to decompress, you actually understand the physical and mental drain that it actually has on your body.- Staff Sgt. Sean Pollock

Youths facing charges

Two of the most recent armed and barricaded incidents involved youths.

A 16-year-old now faces 30 charges, including seven for attempted murder, in connection with the Bannerman incident. Another youth, 15, faces a slew of charges for a standoff on Chudley Street.

Members of the Winnipeg Police Service tactical unit enter a house at the end of a standoff on Chudley Street on Nov. 2. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Pollock said knowing the person on the other end of the line is a youth doesn't change how he does his job.

"Ultimately, our training covers really anybody."

"We recognize that all of these individuals that we are dealing with, they're in a point in their life where they need somebody to reach out to them, and that's where we see our job."

Social media plays a role

Some of the recent scenes were streamed live by those in the area, opening a window into a world that is usually blocked off by police tape.

"In the day and age when cellphones are in everyone's hand, there's an expectation that we're constantly going to be monitored," said Pollock.

Winnipeg police have flooded into an area near Shaughnessy Park School in response to what they say is an "armed and barricaded" person in a home. 0:33

Pollock wouldn't say if police specifically seek out social media as a means of communication, but said they use whatever tools are available to them.

"It's primarily dependent on our subject and the way that they want to communicate with us," he said.

Meth fuelling incidents

Police have said many of the recent incidents have been fuelled by the city's meth crisis, which poses a challenge for officers but doesn't change the way they react, Pollock said.

"It creates some barriers for us," he said, of the meth epidemic.

"Our calls for service have mirrored that, as have the front-line calls for service."

Winnipeg police officers tackle a male suspect after a nearly four-hour standoff at a Pembina Highway beer store in October. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Pollock said his team falls back on their training, which prepares them for a variety of situations.

"Intoxicants of any form have always been part of our experience when we go on deployments," he said.

"The goal for every call that we go to is a peaceful, safe resolution," he said, adding the team is often successful in doing so.

'Really rewarding'

Pollock said it's the challenges the job presents that attracted him to the role in the first place.

"The biggest challenge out there was to try to convince somebody on one of their worst days of their lives and have them come from a point of emotional decision-making back to a point of rational decision-making," he said.

"If you can help bridge that gap for people, not only is it a positive outcome for them, but it's a more positive outcome for us as police officers."

It's really rewarding, and those are the ones that will stand out for me and that's the reason I keep doing this job.- Staff Sgt. Sean Pollock

Pollock said he often follows up with those he's connected with during tense situations, and the relationship doesn't end when the call does.

"It's really rewarding, and those are the ones that will stand out for me and that's the reason I keep doing this job."

Pollock said he feels rewarded by the job and strives for a positive outcome for everyone involved. (Holly Caruk/CBC)