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The Fight Against Crime Notes From The Front : Negotiating to Save a Life, but to No Avail

July 28, 1993|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The SWAT team of the Los Angeles Police Department is not used to losing suicide negotiations.

"The image the public has of the SWAT unit is all guns and action, but negotiating is an area where we shine," said Lt. Tom Lorenzen, the current head of the SWAT unit. "In the almost 25 years that the unit has been around, I think the number that has been lost is in the single digits."

But the unit lost one Monday morning in North Hollywood. After a little more than an hour of negotiations--first with officers from the local station and then with a SWAT team member--a 26-year-old man sitting in a back- yard patio aimed a 12-gauge shotgun at his head and killed himself.

"There was no warning, he just did it," said Lorenzen, who was on the scene.

In almost three years with SWAT, he has seen his share of gruesome scenes. But it was the first time Lorenzen had witnessed a suicide.

He did not appear shaken, but a suicide that comes suddenly in the middle of negotiations is not everyday business. "We have our own culture in our unit and we know that if you are going to be a negotiator, these things will happen," he said. "But today we are still kicking this one around, talking about it. It was definitely a unique experience."

The initial call came into the North Hollywood station about 10 a.m. "It was the mother," said Lt. Gary Hallden at the station. "She called because there were weapons in her house and she was afraid her son was going to commit suicide."

When police got to the house the man walked in front of the garage, holding the shotgun across his body with the muzzle in the air, Hallden said. The man ignored demands that he put down the gun. He ran around the back of the garage and climbed over a wall into a neighbor's yard.

Police officers crouched behind a wall about 30 feet from where he sat and began talking to him. The initial negotiations were introductory.

"You try for some sort of rapport with the subject," said LAPD staff psychologist Kris Mohandie. "You try and find out what is going on with them, see if there was a recent event that might have had an impact--the loss of a loved one or a job. Maybe they had been abusing drugs."

The police officials would not name the specific topics discussed with the man, but Hallden said he was out on parole after a stint in prison for attempted murder, and a warrant had been issued for felony parole violation.

SWAT usually gets involved with threatened suicides, especially when the subject is armed. The unit arrived about 11 a.m., secured the neighborhood and took over the negotiations.

"The way we change negotiators is to have the officer say something like, 'You and I have been talking for quite awhile, now, and here's someone else I want you to talk to,' " Lorenzen said.

The SWAT negotiator began the introductory phase of his work. "He was asking about the man's problems, saying, 'what can we do for you?' Trying to make a connection."

"The approach is to do more listening than talking," Mohandie said. "If you get someone talking about his or her problem, the feelings about it sometimes subside."

But the SWAT negotiator didn't get very far. About 11:30, the shot suddenly rang out. The man died instantly.

"We were dismayed that it occurred, no one wants to lose someone that way," Lorenzen said. "But we know it happens."

Psychological counseling is available for any SWAT unit member who wants help in dealing with a situation, but the negotiator did not ask for help.

"He is fully functional," Lorenzen said, "and we are ready to go on to the next case.

That is what we train for and that is what we do."

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