Extreme Negotiations

Green_Bridge up_2012-08-26

2013-02-22 – Oscar Pistorius says that he fired his gun through a closed door, “accidentally” killing his girlfriend, because he feared an intruder on the other side. I’m a little skeptical. But let’s say it’s true. Who does stuff like this?

In the mid-1980s I was a community mediator and trainer of mediators. The disputes that came to us were mostly between neighbors. Many of the cases were referred to us from the Chicago misdemeanor courts. Someone was arrested over the dispute, usually for a minor act of violence or property damage, but the court saw a recurring pattern and wanted the “perp” and the victim to work things out. I put “perp” in quotation marks because it was extremely rare that only one side was at fault, considering that most of the disputes had been going on for some time.

But our job as mediators was not to find fault at all. Our job was to help folks negotiate a settlement of the issues that were driving their recurring pattern, and we were fairly effective. But, as you might guess, some of the sessions were pretty hot. Because of that, we were given training in a “weapons policy.” In short, this policy gave us techniques for safely terminating a mediation if we discovered weapons were present. After many years, I don’t remember all the details, but one thing is clear: weapons were not allowed at a mediation.

As mediators, we had ongoing in-service training sessions. As a bit of a treat, one of these sessions was given by the lead hostage negotiator for the Chicago police force. (I’d like to say that his name was John Kennedy, but I think that was the name of the President of the United States when I was young.)

Kennedy began his speech by listing how he saw that our job as mediators was similar to his job as a hostage negotiator. We used many of the same negotiating techniques. But there was a key difference. In Kennedy’s words: —

“If my negotiations fail, I am authorize to use lethal force.” It was very low-key.

The fact of the matter was that, as of the time of the speech, Kennedy’s team had never been required to use lethal force. Not even once. “We have to be prepared to do it,” Kennedy said, “to keep hostages and bystanders safe.” But time, Kennedy said, was always on their side. They could always outwait the perp until he surrendered peaceably. Always.

The Chicago hostage negotiation team had been started in the aftermath of a hostage situation in Philadelphia that was ended in a precipitous attack by police that resulted in a fire that destroyed 65 homes and the deaths of 11 people. The Philadelphia situation was definitely provoked, but the response was a disaster. The Chicago team developed techniques designed to prevent a similar thing from occurring here. As of the time I heard Kennedy speak.

So, when I hear stories of people using weapons in self defense (like Oscar Pistorius’ story), I think of the Chicago police hostage negotiators. They always have a perp on the other side of the door. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been called in. And yet, they act with restraint. So when this happens with a private individual, I always wonder, wasn’t there another way? Is shooting blindly a good strategy? Or would it be better to call the police or walk away or at least find out who your target is. Sometimes shooting will be the only way, but I’m betting that’s rare.

Much of our gun culture esteems the “good guy with a gun.” But good guys make tons of mistakes with their guns. And often, time is on their side, but they don’t know it.

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One response to “Extreme Negotiations

  1. Pingback: Fixing the Chicago Police | Eightoh9·

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