As several members of the Kansas City Police Department gathered in a dimly lit room in the basement of a Columbia church Thursday afternoon, a projector displayed a computer screen on the wall with notes about a barricaded suicidal subject.
The situation — a simulation — had Officer Joe Trombino talking through a headset to the subject, a police lieutenant who had lost the will to live after professional and personal setbacks. Boone County sheriff’s Deputy Craig James played the armed and intoxicated man, telling Trombino there was no other way out but to take his own life after he had bound his wife in their home.
They spoke at length, with Trombino asking questions to understand what the man was going through and trying to relate to him as a fellow cop.
“This is not honorable, what you’re doing,” Trombino told him.
The scenario was one of nine that played out at The Crossing, 3615 Southland Drive, in a competition of crisis negotiators from several law enforcement agencies in Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa. It was the first time Columbia has hosted the competition.
Two Columbia police officers, John Dye and Candy Cornman, worked with police from the St. Louis area and officials with the Missouri State Highway Patrol to form the Missouri Association of Crisis Negotiators. The challenge has happened annually the past four years. The winner each year receives money to cover travel to San Marcos, Texas, for the national crisis negotiator competition.
Trombino and his colleagues won this year, but Dye said it was a narrow margin of victory. Of the nine teams, which included a team of Columbia police and Boone County sheriff’s deputies, the difference between first and last place was 12 points. The highest score a team could achieve was 70.
The nine scenarios played out simultaneously, with the competition starting Thursday morning. Teams downstairs spoke with role players located on the floor above them. Competitors used the same equipment they would deploy in an actual standoff situation to make the simulation as authentic as possible, Dye said.
Teams and role players were provided with basic guidelines about the situation but were not told what to say or how to act. Negotiators had to use their training and wits to defuse the faux crisis.
“We’re trying to get people to come back from a crisis mode and back to a reality state,” Dye said. “Kind of slow down, start thinking about what they’re doing; not acting just off the cuff.”
Jim McDonald, a retired Florida Department of Corrections officer, was present Thursday to give general guidance to the teams and the role players. McDonald worked to keep things moving along and ensured no one had an advantage over another competitor.
“They can say and use the tone that they want to use,” McDonald said of the role players. “What I do is say is, ‘You can make these demands, say these things,’ but they can talk about it any way they want to.”
Missouri is one of about 30 states that have or are part of a crisis negotiators association, Dye said, and about 350 to 400 members are spread across the Show-Me State. Agencies are able to share best practices and tactics for neutralizing situations through the groups. Thursday’s competition served exactly that purpose for the participating agencies, he said.