KCSO Crisis Negotiation Team in the forefront of special operations, Part I

When the King County Sheriff’s Office TAC 30 team is called on, it’s because there is a potentially dangerous event that requires highly skilled personnel. Whether it’s an active shooter or hostage situation or virtually any serious case, TAC 30 — commonly called a SWAT team in most places — is sent in to secure and resolve the situation.  What’s unique about the KCSO TAC 30 is whenever they get a call, the Crisis Negotiation Team goes on alert.

The Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) is a group trained in the fine art of mediating with a person (or persons) who have placed themselves or others in a dangerous position. And one of the unique aspects of the KCSO CNT is they also have a mental health professional (MHP) embedded in the team to bring a high level of expertise that is not common in the field of crisis negotiation.

From humble beginnings

MPO George Ireland

Master Police Officer (MPO) George Ireland has been on patrol with KCSO for 23 years. When he joined this unit about 10 years ago it was called the Hostage Negotiation Team. That team had been in place for several years, but morale was low because they didn’t feel the department appreciated what they were doing.

MPO Ireland decided to make it his project to correct the perception because “I felt our mission was critical.” He realized that maybe those in charge didn’t understand what all the team brought to the department, so it was the team’s responsibility to enlighten them.

“If we’re going to call ourselves negotiators,” he said, “we should be able to negotiate with our command staff to improve our situation.”

MPO Ireland’s assumptions were correct. Once conversations with leadership began about the team’s needs and what it delivered, the response was very positive, and resources were procured in a short amount of time.

One critical upgrade for the team was reliable communications equipment and a mobile space to work. The team had been huddling up around the trunk of a squad car when on a call. Not ideal during a rainy northwest winter.

MPO Ireland took over an underused major crimes vehicle and over a Thanksgiving weekend, gutted it and put it back together. The vehicle has all the communications equipment set up and ready to roll at a moment’s notice. A small team can work together comfortably out of the weather. And thanks to a former special operations commander, there’s even a coffee maker. “It’s a popular piece of gear when it’s cold and wet out,” Ireland adds.

“I pushed for a lot of things early on that I knew would be critical,” Ireland said. He saw a need to get the team to the high performing level of other special operations teams, like the bomb squad, K9, and air support.

The team also got their own uniform. “Something as simple as uniforms helps improve the esprit de corps,” according to Ireland, “it gives a sense of unity and professionalism.”

Growing the team

The CNT has doubled in size to 18 members, with each of them serving on-call. That means they all have a regular patrol or supervisory position that they do on a daily basis, and the crisis negotiation is only a part of their responsibilities. Even though it might sound like extra work, the positions are few and highly coveted similar to other special operations teams.

Sergeant Sam Speight spent about 17 years on the TAC 30 team prior to joining the CNT, which he now leads. His experience on that side of a crisis and personal knowledge of the TAC 30 team is invaluable when it comes to the two teams working toward a resolution that is successful for all parties involved.

There are three six-person teams, each with a team leader, who is the most experienced negotiator.  When there’s a call where a negotiator will be helpful, Sgt. Speight coordinates a response team, anywhere from two to six people, depending on the situation.

Sgt. Chad Mulligan

While Sgt. Speight refers to MPO Ireland as the “heart and soul” of the CNT for his ongoing service, he also calls out Sgt. Chad Mulligan for his leadership on the team.

Sgt. Mulligan, who has also spent 10-plus years with the TAC 30 unit, led the CNT for 18 months prior to Sgt. Speight. While he was leading the team, CNT started having joint trainings with TAC 30.

“The goal was to get them speaking the same language,” said Sgt. Mulligan, “and to have insights on to how both teams worked.” He described that on one side with these trainings, you have negotiators learning what equipment and procedures the tactical team utilizes, for a forced entry or setting a perimeter. On the other side, the tactical team learns more about what kind of information they need to provide the negotiators to do their job.

Part II will look at a mental health professional’s perspective