Barksdale, right, at the police academy

Ithaca, N.Y. — In her role as a crisis negotiator, Ithaca police Inv. Christine Barksdale sometimes has to spend hours talking with suspects or barricaded subjects on the phone.

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What helps is that Barksdale – and other members of local law enforcement’s Critical Incident Negotiations Team — actually enjoy simply talking to others.

“I negotiated once with someone who said, ‘I could do this all day,’” Barksdale said. “I said, ‘Great, me too.’”

Barksdale spoke last week at the Citizens’ Police Academy about CINT along with Sgt. Debbie Lawrence and Deputy Peter Walker of the sheriff’s office.

Barksdale, right, at the police academy

All three stressed the importance of being able to talk and establish an empathetic connection with those in high-stress environments.

“Our gift is being able to talk to people,” Barksdale said.

Here are four other things we learned from the officers’ presentation:

1 — Crisis negotiations can be exhausting

Occasionally, even when there isn’t anybody on the other end, Ithaca police crisis negotiators have to keep speaking into one of their “throw phones” in the hope that the suspect will pick up.

“We could literally spend hours just talking to dead air, just trying to get someone to answer us,” Walker says.

That kind of work can be exhausting, which is why CINT has other negotiators prepared to switch in and out for others. (Of course, spending hours on the phone with a possibly hostile or apathetic interlocutor can be similarly draining.)

“When you talk to nothing to four hours, you get tired,” Walker said.

Walker, left; Barksdale, center; Lawrence, right. Photo courtesy of the IPD

2 — Never talk about “endings”

Deputy Walker noted that crisis negotiators try avoid saying that they want to “end” a crisis negotiation. Their preferred language, he says, is that they seek to “solve” a certain crisis.

“We never want to ‘end;’ we want to solve,” Walker says. “We don’t scream; we don’t threaten; we don’t get into arguments.

That may seem like a minor semantic distinction, but it’s important for informing the negotiators’ frame of mind.

3 — Different backgrounds

Sgt. Lawrence noted that one of the advantages of the CINT team is that its members come from different walks of life.

“We all have very different backgrounds and that’s been very, very useful as a team,” she says.

Lawrence in particular noted that Deputy Walker is a veteran of the military — and that this history sometimes allows him to establish crucially important connections with subjects.

“He can get a bond and a good communication going … you tap into different things like that and you get somewhat attached,” she says.

4 — Do they fulfill promises?

In general, crisis negotiators do try to fulfill their promises to suspects or those in barricaded situations, according to Deputy Walker.

Obviously, they can’t honor requests for illegal drugs — but negotiators have given suspects sips of beer if that’s what it takes them to resolve a situation peacefully, according to the negotiators.

Even the promise of one cigarette can be the difference between prolonging a situation and finding a resolution to a crisis, the negotiators said. “Something that simple,” Lawrence said, “could make a huge difference.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.