Navigating In-Crisis Calls - The Important Role of Negotiators

Emergency Support Team Negotiators with headphones on, taking notes

September 28, 2021

How many times have you heard listening called an underrated skill? Maybe none if you weren't paying attention. 

D/Sgt. Melisa Bernum knows how necessary it is to concentrate on what someone is saying. 

"If our Emergency Support Team is called to respond to your community or neighborhood, usually someone is in extreme crisis," said Detective Sergeant Bernum, team leader for the Michigan State Police (MSP) Negotiation Unit. "It's my unit's job to communicate with people in crisis, to keep them safe and the community safe." 

The Negotiation Unit, which works in conjunction with psychologists from the department's Office of Behavioral Science (OBS), is part of the MSP's Emergency Support Team (ES Team). The unit is activated when someone puts themselves or others in danger. The unit's negotiators perform this role in addition to their full-time assignments as troopers and sergeants. 

"I had an interest in being a negotiator when I was a younger trooper," says Detective Sergeant Bernum, who is assigned to the Fifth District Headquarters and has now been a negotiator for nearly nine years. "I had a co-worker doing it who thought I'd be a good fit and encouraged me to apply." 

The State Police instructs and educates its negotiators through schools, when there are positions to fill and, in the field with tactical members of the ES Team three times a year. Eight new negotiators have been added within the last year bringing the total number to 14.

"Our negotiators are a huge asset to us on the tactical side," said Sgt. Andy Pinkerton, commander of the ES Team. "The best-case scenario is they speak with the person in crisis or whomever is in contact with them, and we receive a real-time assessment about their demeanor. We can model what we do around that, which increases safety for everyone. We work very well together." 

This partnership is most successful when there is a peaceful resolution. Like in the Wayland Post area, in August, when a man involved in a crime fled the scene, leveled a shotgun at sheriff's deputies and then barricaded himself inside a gas station.  

"We were able to determine this was a man who had experienced extreme trauma when he was younger," said Detective Sergeant Bernum. "We got him on the phone and, after several hours, and even with him firing his weapon throughout our conversations, we were able to convince him to surrender with no one injured." 

More recently, in the Flint area, there was a domestic situation in which some family members were held against their will. While a negotiator was speaking with the suspect, the victims were able to escape to safety. This situation also ended with the negotiator talking him out, with no injuries to anyone. 

"Of course, there are calls that don't end the way we'd like them to," said Detective Sergeant Bernum. "Every one of us tries our best to empathize and bring some sort of resolution to their immediate crisis, attempting to solve whatever the problem is for each incident. The most important thing is the person on the other end knows we're listening."

MSP Negotiator Unit. Men and women in blue fatigues standing in front of a blue work bus.