Garda negotiators called to two suicide-threat cases every week
HIGHLY trained garda negotiators are being called out twice a week to try to stop people taking their own lives.
Demand for the specialist unit of officers has doubled since the economic collapse.
In an exclusive interview, the garda in charge of co-ordinating and training the low-key squad told the Irish Independent that the majority of cases involve men, including a significant increase in the number aged in their 40s and 50s over the past six years.
"The recession has resulted in a significant increase in demand for our services - in the past six years, the average number of incidents we deal with has doubled and there is an obvious connection between both," said the National Negotiator Co-ordinator (NNC), an experienced detective, who cannot be identified for operational reasons.
"A typical call results from an incident where there is a stand-off between gardai and an individual who is barricaded into a house or apartment, armed and threatening suicide or self-harm.
"The role of the garda negotiator is not a law enforcement one; we are not there to make judgements or build a case because in the vast majority of cases the individual is experiencing a personal crisis and is at the lowest ebb in their lives.
"Most of the individuals who find themselves in these situations are decent, hardworking people who have never had any reason to come into contact with the gardai before."
The squad's most recent call-out was on Friday when an 18-year-old fired a number of shots at a house in Cork. The incident began at 11am and concluded at 2.20am when he was found by gardai at an outhouse. Nobody was injured.
For several years, garda negotiators operated informally as part of the anti-terrorist Special Detective Unit (SDU) and were deployed during high-profile kidnappings and siege situations, such as the abduction of Jennifer Guinness in 1986.
Garda management established a more formal structure, the Hostage Negotiation Section (HNS), in 2007 to ensure there were enough trained personnel to deal with an increasing number of situations .
The HNS, which is attached to the Special Detective Unit in Dublin and is headed up by an experienced detective superintendent, has overall responsibility for the negotiators on the ground. The senior HNS officer and the National Negotiator Co-ordinator are involved in the selection, training and co-ordination of the 70 or so specialists who are stationed in every division in the country.
Because of the highly sensitive nature of their work, the negotiators are not publicly identified and the members are reluctant to discuss "field craft".
Each potential candidate undergoes an intensive training course in the Garda College.
The course instructors have trained with the London Metropolitan police, the Scottish Police and the FBI. They also work closely with mental health professionals attached to the Central Mental Hospital in Dublin.
The head of the Hostage Negotiation Section said: "Our members can vary from patrol car drivers to dedicated community police officers, as long as they satisfy the strict criteria laid down."
He added: "In each incident, an assessment is made on how to de-escalate a situation where violence has been used or is threatened, and open a line of communication with the individual," the National Negotiator Co-ordinator said.
"Trigger points can be anniversaries of deaths, being laid off from work or losing a business; being threatened with eviction, repossession by banks or marital separation."
Despite perceptions to the contrary, Christmas is not a period which sees an upsurge in emergencies.