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Negotiators in Latrobe standoff were being 'aggressive' with word choice, says expert

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By Rossilynne Skena and Kate Wilcox
Saturday, July 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

A crisis negotiations expert said police officers who called the man at the center of a nearly 17-hour standoff in Latrobe a “sissy” and a “loser” used unusual language, given the situation.

“It's a little aggressive,” said Randall Rogan, a communications professor at Wake Forest University and a nationally known expert in crisis talks.

“Generally, I would say that's fairly atypical in trying to facilitate negotiation with a suspect who is barricaded,” Rogan said Friday.

Through a bullhorn, police called to Scott Murphy: “Don't be a sissy,” “Quit being a loser,” “Nothing but a loser in there,” and “Come outside. Be a man.”

“You're inconveniencing a lot of people in the neighborhood,” negotiators told him.

Capt. Stephen Eberle, commander of the state police barracks in Greensburg, declined to comment on the tactics, saying “every one is unique to the given circumstance.”

But Rogan said the officers' strategy in this case can be tricky.

“They're attacking the person's ego, self-esteem,” Rogan said. “Calling the person out publicly creates even more of a challenge. It's already a high emotional intensity situation. ... Using such language can backfire.”

Negotiators work to establish a rapport with suspects so they will trust that police want to help, he said.

The strategy prompted a lot of discussion on blogs and social media sites throughout the day by some who deemed the language fitting and others who thought it was too harsh.

Don Hess, an instructor at the Municipal Police Officers' Training Academy at Westmoreland County Community College, said that aggressive tactics, such as yelling at the suspect or playing loud noises and music, are not used until a long period of time has passed.

“Obviously, the person is emotional, and your purpose is to get them to give up without collateral damage. What you see most of the time is using a softer approach,” he said.

Input from family and friends could change that, Hess said, adding that the tactics police used with Murphy were most certainly within police protocol.

But every situation is different, and each calls for a unique strategy, said Aaron Lauth, a negotiator with the South Hills Area Council of Governments' Community Emergency Response Team.

“It hinges on the person you're dealing with,” Lauth said. “It depends on their demeanor. The best negotiator is the negotiator that's able to play off the communication from the target.”

Lauth said he couldn't specifically comment on the tactics used in the Latrobe standoff.

“You have to feed off of what is evolving in the situation,” he said. “It has a lot to do with the demeanor of the subject reacting.”

Staff writers Renatta Signorini and Richard Gazarik contributed. Rossilynne Skena and Kate Wilcox are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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