Code Red:

Monday, July 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:11 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

On June 11, Steven Rios stood atop the Maryland Avenue parking garage, five stories above the ground. Down below, a few dozen on-lookers watched from just beyond a barrier of yellow police tape.

“If you’re going to jump,” a man in a wheelchair said to no one in particular, “get on with it.”

A police officer, partially hidden behind a ledge on the fourth floor of the parking garage, spoke to Rios while a small group of specially trained officers clustered nearby in a stairwell.

Like the crowd, the Columbia Police Department’s Crisis Negotiation Team could only wait.

Rios was obviously distraught. Earlier that week, the 27-year-old, married Columbia police officer admitted to investigators that he had been intimately involved with Jesse Valencia, a college student found with his throat cut near his East Campus apartment. On June 10, Rios called Columbia police from Kansas City, said he had a shotgun and threatened to kill himself. For the next several hours, members of the police crisis negotiators talked to Rios via cell phone and eventually persuaded him not to harm himself.

Rios was placed into protective custody at Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center, but less than 24 hours later, he broke away and bolted to the top of the parking garage. And once again, crisis negotiators – this time, backed by the department’s Special Tactics and Response Team — were dispatched to try to avert a tragedy.

Though Rios, a two-and-a-half year veteran of the force, was a colleague, the police negotiators had been trained to deal with his situation as they would any other.

“There’s really no great secret to it,” says Capt. Sam Hargadine, the team’s commander. “Ninety percent of the time, (the person) wants to give up. If you can control the time, you can de-escalate emotions .… The longer a negotiation goes on, the better.”

The 16-member team is drawn from throughout the Columbia Police Department. Prospective members must observe the team for a year, then attend a five-day training course at Northwestern University. Every other month, the team drills for what’s known as a “Code Red” — a crisis situation.

John Kennedy, a retired Chicago police commander who teaches crisis negotiation at Northwestern University, says it is not unusual to have police officers negotiating with a member of their own force, especially under the threat of suicide. Suicide rates among police officers are high due to the intense stress of the job, he says.

“You have to understand there may be emotional ties, and be aware of this,” Kennedy says. “But it’s the same (negotiation) process.”

It begins by trying to establish a rapport with the subject. Suicide threats are the second most common calls to the crisis team. Hargadine says “there is very little room for error” when dealing with a person who wants to die.

“Usually (the subject) has the ability to do it right then and there,” he says.

Crisis negotiators are trained to act quickly to find out why the subject is angry and to determine if he or she is prone to violence against others. Buying time is important. Hargadine recalls an incident a few years ago, when police were called out to defuse a suicide threat by an elderly veteran. The negotiation went on for 12 hours, but ended in success.

The most common call to the crisis team involves hostage situations; for example, those who barricade themselves in the home with other family members. Such situations typically will revolve around arguments between estranged spouses, Hargadine says.

To establish communication, police technicians will activate old phone lines or tap into existing lines. Sometimes, a member of the Special Tactics and Response Team, or STAR, will deliver a phone – anything to avoid using a bull-horn to communicate with the subject.

“Bull-horning is least desired,” Hargadine says. “It’s too authoritarian, it’s not two-way, and there is no dialogue.”

Rios’ first suicide threat was not considered a “Code Red,” Hargadine says, because the STAR team was not dispatched. STAR members were at the Maryland Avenue parking garage the following night, however, as Rios stood on the edge of the roof.

The crowd below watched as Rios bent down, hands on his knees, and listened to the officer. Under the circumstances, Hargadine says, a negotiator would “speak calmly, find out what the story is,” try to bring rationale to the situation.

Because Rios had what Hargadine called “a lot of personal issues,” negotiators on the scene thought it best to contact a family member. Hargadine says family members can alert officers to past psychological problems or offer background information about why the subject may want to commit suicide.

The negotiation went on for about two hours before Rios finally stepped down from the ledge. He was out of sight of the crowd below when a swarm of officers emerged from the stairwell and escorted him, without handcuffs, down the stairs.

Rios was transferred to Fulton State Hospital, where less than a week later, he resigned from the force. On Thursday, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of Jesse Valencia. After two suicide threats, he will likely be evaluated to determine if he is competent to stand trial. A preliminary hearing in the case is set for Friday.

While determining Rios’ competency is a matter for trained psychologists, Hargadine says police negotiators are better equipped to defuse crisis situations where time is of the essence.

“We’re not psychologists,” he says. “We’re trying to get (the subject) to a psychologist.”

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