Unexpected Negotiations

Tamara Smith , Dispatch Coordinator, University of Utah Police

I started my career as a 911/police dispatcher in 1998 at the Salt Lake City Police Dept. I grew up listening to my mom’s scanner and felt extra covert special because I had learned the 10 codes for the county. Much to my dismay I learned the SLC doesn’t use the same codes as SL county did.

One night at around 1900 hours I am working what SLC calls the service channel. This is the channel where you fill a variety of requests from the officers from running warrants to calling a tow truck. This particular night a relatively new officer keyed up on my channel and asked me to call my complainant back and ask him to step outside. I can see that he is on a suicidal threats call and figured I would be calling the friend or family member who called this in. When I called in a male answered and he sounded completely broken. I could tell he was crying so I told him that everything would be OK, the officers were there and needed him to step outside to talk with them. That is when I discovered that the complainant IS the suicidal person. Little did I know when I dialed that number that I would be spending the next 75 minutes in suicide negotiations.

The male subject had a knife and had already cut his wrists but that hadn’t worked so he was threatening to cut his throat. Having dealt with suicidal ideation in my own family, I knew that if this man were left alone to his thoughts he would follow through. So I kept him on the phone and began asking him questions. I asked him about things from his family to his daily routine. I shared some of my information with him as well. Every so often I would ask again if he would open the door for the officers and he kept saying he wasn’t ready. This gave me hope that he would be ready if I just stayed on the line.

In the meantime I had to get someone else to take over the regular duties of the service channel so I could focus on this man. I could hear that the officer had requested any on duty SWAT members to assist him. At one point they asked me to hang up with him because a LT who was trained in negotiations was going to make the call in. When I told the man this he said he wouldn’t answer a second phone call. He refused to talk to anyone else, he would only talk to me. I had already built a rapport with him and I didn’t want to run the risk of losing that contact.

When the few SWAT officers who were on duty arrived at the scene they used a battering ram to gain entry into his apartment. I heard the loud crashed followed by “police police police” come through the headset. He was naturally very panicked at this point yelled out. I could hear the officers in the background asking him to drop the knife and telling him they just wanna help him. He still kept me on the phone and began asking me, “what do I do, what do I do?” I told him to put the knife down and just focus on my voice because I wasn’t going to hang up on him. He paused for a brief second and then said, “OK”. Then he stopped talking to me and I could only hear muffled voices and scuffling.

The next thing I heard was the officer who asked me to call in on the phone saying, “Is this dispatch?” Yes, I said. “You did a great job and I am sorry for dropping that in your lap. I owe you a pizza.”

Well, he never did buy me that pizza. All in all a pizza just wouldn’t have cut it anyways. But that is why I do what I do. That man lived and got the help he needed because I took that 75 minutes to talk to him. That 75 minutes is insignificant if it saves someone the rest of their lives. Even though we all carry the weight of things we wish we had never ever seen, heard, or learned, making a difference for even one person makes it all worth it.