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January 20, 2010

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'We're not heroes,' say crisis cops

TWO teams of police negotiators in Shanghai have been specially selected for the role of dealing with crises, typically involving people threatening to commit suicide. Their job is to talk the perpetrators out of killing themselves, and it's nothing like what's portrayed in the movies, Pan Zheng reports.

Crisis negotiators Ni Jianjun, Lulu and Niu Dong save lives but they want to make one point clear: "What you have seen in the movies is not true."

The images in movies from Hollywood to Hong Kong paint them as incredible people. They seem to be omnipotent and don't know how to fail. They save lives and become heroes, just by talking.

But when you get up close and personal with them, they're ordinary people, like us.

Yet these Baoshan District police crisis negotiators have to be quick thinking, dedicated and disciplined in everything they do.

The Baoshan police negotiating team was established in August 2008. It is divided into two groups and has six members, five men and a woman. The majority of their work involves cases dealing with suicide attempts.

They're volunteers, working incidents part-time and with no pay, although they are regular members of the police force. They joined the negotiating team out of personal interest.

We are unable to use their real names for this story so that their effectiveness and professional status is not compromised.

"There's great pressure when you realize that a life may vanish if you fail to handle it well," says Ni. "Although we don't know the people we talk to, we have feelings, too."

The members work in two three-person groups and their duties are allocated.

Take Ni's group as an example.

Ni works mostly as the negotiator. His job is to talk directly to the troubled person involved in a crisis.

Niu is the group leader, responsible for liaison with other departments to get information and support, develop the overall strategy and arrange assignments.

Lulu, the only female member, backs up the negotiator with advice on details and encouragement. In special cases, they may exchange roles.

"The job needs a high level of responsibility and skills," says Niu. "You must be very professional, with suitable mindset and emotional self-control."

Ni divides a negotiation into several stages.

"When I first get a mission from Niu, I'm excited," he says.

"But the pressure builds up on the way to the scene after I learn the background of the person involved.

"When I get to the location, many people are anxiously looking forward to my arrival and I feel proud to be there," he says. "But my nerves kick in when I look up to see a person standing on a tower or roof."

In the normal course of events these negotiators experience a wider and richer range of circumstances than most people.

Nerves, excitement, sadness and joy - all kinds of emotions flood through them during a rescue crisis. And they're the only ones on hand to deal with it.

The team members repeatedly emphasize that they're common people, but according to the strict selection criteria for the job, not everyone is suited to the task.

The Shanghai Public Security Bureau started to recruit negotiators in 2008, and over 200 police signed up for an interview.

The requirements include: Over eight years' work experience; physically and mentally healthy; quick reaction and 24-hour standby; think quickly and rationally; patient and innovative; good team worker; priority for those with education background in psychology and who can speak two languages or dialects.

The initial selection process is followed by a demanding interview when most applicants are knocked out.

The first round involves a candidate being asked to talk about a random topic for at least three minutes.

"The interviewer may just point at a cup on the table and ask you to talk about it," says Lulu, "and you have to keep talking, from the cup to the water, from the water to the drinker - anything you can relate and imagine."

The interview is probably already over for you if the tone is wrong or your mind gets stuck for something to say.

The second round involves simulation of some real scenes to test a candidate's psychological endurance.

"The test varies for different people," says Lulu. "Someone will be asked a lot of quick questions. Some will be taunted by the interviewers.

"For others, the interviewer may throw a cup of cold water in the person's face, looking for their response and reaction.

"It's a very tough time," says Lulu. "All the interviewers are top negotiators and try to put the candidates into extreme conditions.

"You don't know when they'll suddenly turn against you. But when it's over, they'll apologize to you," Lulu smiles.

The third round involves a test for professional knowledge, including psychology and police routine. After these three rounds, most of those who don't fit the job have been knocked out.

But once they get through, candidates face two weeks of intensive training. It's no easier than the interview and many simulations of extreme conditions can be exasperating.

"We've been put into a simulated scene in our training involving someone with an explosive and erratic temperament who wants to jump from the roof," says Ni.

"During the negotiation, he repeatedly steps back and forth to the edge. And suddenly he starts to abuse you with the rudest words. With such a situation continuing for hours, you start to get frustrated and lose patience. You may ask yourself: why am I here, only to be abused?"

The training course is not the end. The assessment process continues through to real-life situations where candidates are measured on how they handle the pressure.

Fortunately, the six Baoshan police negotiators all passed the interview stage and successfully graduated from the course.

In Shanghai, there's no fulltime police negotiator and all involved in the work have other jobs. Crisis negotiations are done by police volunteers.

"Sometimes we get to a scene at 2am, and resolve the case at 5am or 6am," says Lulu.

"Then we'll go to do our regular work at 9am for no extra pay. If we're not passionate or don't love what we do, we can't stay the course."

Although they're all policemen, they never act as such during a crisis. Talking is their only role.

"There are three reasons why we don't get involved in other aspects of a rescue situation," says Niu.

"First, if a negotiator intervenes physically rather than verbally to rescue a person, it will probably become known as part of our strategy," he says. "This could compromise our effectiveness in later negotiations when we try to talk a person through a situation.

"Second, if a negotiator is thinking of doing anything other than talking, it may immediately affect his perspective of the crisis situation, and that will be felt by the subject.

"Third, negotiators are not professional rescuers. As situations are dangerous to some degree, we have to ensure their safety first," he says.

Niu says the two teams mainly deal with mentally troubled people and they try to ensure that such problems don't occur again.

"Otherwise, if we just simply pull them down from the roof, they will probably be up there again another time," he says.

On arrival at a crisis scene, they first say to the subject: "We're negotiators from Baoshan police and we're here to help you."

"No matter whether the person is a suicide candidate or a hijacker, they're human in our eyes," says Niu, "and they have the right to live on."

As the main negotiator in his group, Ni has a lot of stories. He reiterated the following one during our interview.

On May 4, last year at 11:50pm, a woman surnamed Zhang climbed onto the external air-conditioning unit of her fourth-floor apartment and threatened to jump.

When Niu, Ni and Lulu got to the scene, Zhang decided to climb back inside the apartment and closed every window and door, refusing to talk to anyone. Complicating the matter was that her three-year-old child was also with her.

The negotiators learned that the crisis resulted from Zhang's husband having an affair with another woman and the wife had finally had enough. They decided to talk to Zhang through the closed door.

"It was very difficult because I could not see her facial expression and she could not see me, a real communication barrier."

Ni began to talk about his own life first, about what he had suffered. On the other side, Zhang kept silent.

"It was terrible to get no reaction. I didn't know whether she was listening or not," says Ni. "So I had to switch my topic again and again."

After a while, Ni turned the talk to her marriage and that was a turning point.

"She began to shout and cry. It was a good response because that meant she wanted to communicate," Ni says. Then he switched the topic to her child and her job. An hour later, Zhang agreed to let Ni into the room, alone.

When he stepped in, he left the door half open behind him.

"I looked into her eyes, listened to her story, and I told her that her husband should be blamed for his behavior," says Ni.

"Finally, she allowed her husband into the room and I criticized him in Zhang's presence."

Eventually, the negotiation succeeded and Zhang's suicidal tendencies receded.

"Before we left, I asked to shake hands with her. And when we were shaking hands, I did it with a little strength, making her feel that she's supported."

At scenes of crisis, the negotiators are heroes. But when they return to everyday life, they have their own way of releasing the pressure and emotion. Ni will take home a pot of flowers every time he finishes a successful negotiation, while Lulu will go to KTV with her husband.

"I still remember the first time I finished a mission as the main negotiator," says Lulu. "I went back home and said nothing until I received a message from Ni: 'Talk to your family, and you'll feel better'."

"During a negotiation, many times we become a mirror," says Lulu. "When we're comforting people, we can also feel their pain and misfortune. And these feelings affect our own emotions, more or less. So we have to learn how to adjust and let it out."

Having worked in the field for 18 months, the team members have their own ways of defining "successful negotiation."

"Many people think the only measure is whether a potential suicide victim is rescued or not. But we don't think so," says Niu.

"We're just negotiators. We just talk. We cannot control everything. So for us, when we look back on a negotiation, we mostly check whether our strategy and skills were properly used. If the answer is yes, then we think it was successful."


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