FAIRBANKS — Much of the police work was going on behind the scenes last month when a police armored vehicle approached a suicidal man with a handgun in a Chena Pump Road-area parking lot.
Michael Bracht, the man barricaded in a red SUV, carried a cellphone and a gun. Following an early morning chase around Fairbanks, he spent about 10 hours talking to a Fairbanks crisis negotiation team before turning himself in.
Officer B.C. Rigdon, the second-most senior member of the Fairbanks Police Department crisis team, initiated the call and spent seven hours on the phone with Bracht before passing the phone to one of his colleagues. It was the longest negotiation of his 14 years on team.
Rigdon mostly listened and occasionally spoke to Bracht while one of his colleagues, known as a “coach,” passed him notes with suggested negotiation tactics. A third team member, the “intelligence” officer, researched the history of the man holed up inside the SUV, trying to understand his motivations and possible trigger points.
At one point, near the end of the negotiation Bracht cut off communication and a Bearcat armored police vehicle approached Bracht’s SUV. Members of a police tactical team broke a window and sprayed the interior with tear gas and pepper spray to pressure Bracht to get back on the phone.
“Seven hours go by fast believe it or not,” Rigdon said in an interview a few weeks after the standoff. “You’re not really keeping track of time. Once you get off the phone and start doing other things for a while you realize you’ve been on the phone for a while. I wasn’t necessarily ready to get off the phone but he was ready for me to get off the phone.”
Rigdon passed the phone to team leader Officer Alex Wells who spent another three hours talking to Bracht. They reached an agreement that led to Bracht surrendering peacefully in exchange for a moment to talk to his girlfriend and to smoke a cigarette after he was arrested. Bracht is now in jail facing charges for allegedly walking away from a halfway house and for leading police on a chase around Fairbanks.
Although half-day negotiations are draining, it’s a good sign when negotiations go long, Rigdon said. “Time is always on the negotiator’s side because you can only stay angry so long,” he said. “It’s too exhausting. The more time we spend with them the more likely it is to resolve peacefully.”
Members of Fairbanks’ four-member crisis negotiation team usually gets to only a handful of calls per year, although they’re often especially important calls.
Rigdon spoke about his work on the crisis interview team earlier this month at an interview at City Hall. He was joined by colleague Officer Robert Hall, who’s been on the team for two years. They estimated the city police force uses the negotiators two or three times per year on average, although it’s not unprecedented for marathon negotiation sessions to occur within days of each other. The Alaska State Troopers have their own crisis negotiators for incidents outside the city.
The crisis negotiators get training in psychology and negotiation tactics, though Hall stressed they use skills commonly employed by patrol officers.
“A lot of patrol does a lot of the negotiation stuff every day ... when they go to volatile calls, it’s just a matter of listening and letting somebody vent,” he said.
Rigdon and Hall were on patrol during a graveyard shift in July when they encountered another suicidal man who, like Bracht, fled from a police traffic stop. Unlike Bracht they didn’t have a chance to speak with him and he killed himself in his car.
The crisis negotiation team gets called for suicidal subjects, as well as hostage situations and cases where a crime suspect barricades himself to avoid arrest.
Fairbanks police’s negotiations team had four members during the Chena Pump Road standoff — Wells, Ridgon, Hall and Officer David Duncan. Duncan recently left the department because of a different type of negotiation. He took a job in the private sector this month, citing dissatisfaction with how the City Council has handled a new city police contract.
Negotiators use carrots and sticks to get a subject to surrender, but there are limits to types of carrots they can offer.
Overwhelmingly, subjects ask for police to go away. That’s a non-starter for people suspected crimes as well as for suicidal subjects, Rigdon said.
“We have a duty as law enforcement to protect people whether they want protection or not. That’s our duty,” Rigdon said. “It’s not going to look good for us to leave and then (someone does) decide to commit suicide.”
Subjects also ask to speak to other people, like family members and religious leaders. That’s usually something negotiators won’t budge on as well, Rigdon said. It can be hard to predict whether the conversation will defuse or intensify the situation.
Cellphones have made police negotiations more difficult. Negotiators used to have a direct two-way connection with their subjects using a military-style “throw-phone” that negotiators launched at their subject from a safe distance to establish communication. With ubiquitous cellphones, subjects can call whoever they want.
In the Chena Pump Road case Bracht talked with his mother in Florida as well as a Fairbanks TV reporter conducting a live broadcast during the negotiation. In future crisis negotiations, members of the public can best help by refraining from talking to subjects while they’re talking to the professional negotiators, Rigdon said.
“If they’re talking to somebody else then they’re not talking to us,” he said.
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545.