'He thought we were vampires': Life as a police negotiator

Snr Sgt Pukallus was on scene when a man armed with a knife was roaming Nelson Park at Alexandra Headland in January 2014.
Snr Sgt Pukallus was on scene when a man armed with a knife was roaming Nelson Park at Alexandra Headland in January 2014. Brett Wortman

POLICE negotiator Troy Pukallus has had knives thrown at him, been threatened by armed gunmen and parleyed with Somalian insurgents.

It speaks to his skills that he has still never tasered, sprayed or shot any of the violent, unstable people he deals with on a regular basis.

The senior sergeant coordinates the Sunshine Coast police negotiator team, and has seen plenty of action in his time.

"We do everything from suicide interventions, barricade situations, sieges, protests... kidnappings, anything you'd expect that specialist police would assist with," he said.

There are between 10-20 negotiators - or "negs", in the police vernacular - based on the Sunshine Coast at any time.

Being a negotiator comes as an extra skill on usual police duties - Snr Sgt Pukallus is also officer-in-charge of the Coast's specialist domestic violence unit.

While he couldn't give exact figures, he said the vast majority of situations in his 19 years as a negotiator were resolved without violence.

"The majority of our jobs are suicide interventions, that's just the nature of it," he said.

"I'm waking up men and women in the middle of the night, to go out and basically use their skills to stop someone killing themselves, or desist, or de-escalate that behaviour so we can get them that help.

"Generally it's in the middle of the night, that just seems to be how it happens with most of these things.

"It's usually people that are in crisis that we're trying to help."

Remaining calm in the most stressful circumstances is vital.

"You've got to be calm, that's why we work in teams, to support each other," Snr Sgt Pukallus said.

"It can be really stressful sometimes. You've got to be that calm eye of the storm."

He formed part of the response as a man armed with a knife roamed Nelson Park at Alexandra Headland in January 2014, threatening to stab himself.

"You've got families, you've got people walking past, and you've got police trying to contain a person in a public place," Snr Sgt Pukallus said.

Police officers feared the man would hurt himself, officers or families in the area, but after a 1.5 hour stand-off he surrendered and was taken to hospital.

While many of the people negotiators deal with are suffering mental illness, Snr Sgt Pukallus said they came from all backgrounds and demographics.

"I've negotiated with a 10-year-old boy on the roof of a school; I've negotiated with a 70-year-old man with a firearm; I've negotiated with young girls threatening to jump off a bridge; I've negotiated with what you'd consider atypical - angry young men with firearms in a house.

"Mums and dads and grandparents and children... people who are drug affected, people who aren't, people who have been very drunk, people that are completely sober.

"There's always something underlying the surface and that's what we've got to get to, and talk to them about and help them through."

The person is then connected with services that can prevent them falling back into crisis.

Snr Sgt Pukallus worked with the family of Nigel Brennan after the photojournalist was kidnapped by insurgents in Somalia in 2008, before the case was passed on to federal police.


Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout and Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan were kidnapped by Somalian insurgents in 2008.
Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout and Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan were kidnapped by Somalian insurgents in 2008.

The kidnappers would call in the middle of the night to make ransom demands, and Snr Sgt Pukallus was responsible for communicating with them as well as keeping the family calm.

Not all people negotiators deal with are responsive - he dealt with one man who believed all the police officers outside his home were vampires.

"It was the middle of the night, and they were basically waiting for dawn, because they believed when the sun came up we would all burn to ashes," Snr Sgt Pukallus said.

"We got a 20-minute window of rationality to talk him though surrender, and out he came."

Every negotiator is trained in specialist communication skills, but Snr Sgt Pukallus said it took patient, empathetic, quick-thinking and adaptable person with a genuine interest in mental illness to become an effective negotiator.

"We go through a series of courses and training over the years to enhance our skills.

"It's very rewarding when we can use just purely our communication skills to influence someone to come down, come out, come in... to get to the point where they don't take their own life or hurt someone else."

Jobs can vary in duration from five minutes to several days, and the way negotiators approach every job is different.

"We don't have any sort of golden phrases we use, or anything like that," Snr Sgt Pukallus said.

"It's about just listening to the underlying issues... being credible, being kind, being equal.

"It's not expecting you're immediately going to get rapport with people, because a lot of them have backgrounds of negative interactions with police, or a lack of trust.

"It can be a hard sell sometimes, but it's all about being patient and having time and not getting frustrated with the process."

Topics:  crime editors picks mental health negotiator police suicide

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