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Deputies use words to diffuse domestic situations

Last Thursday a distraught Hubbard County student wanted to end it all. He had a gun, things were going badly and he didn't see a way out except suicide.

Hubbard County Sgt. Mark Krossen calmly defused the situation, talked the distraught man into surrendering the weapon - and living.

Increasingly, as the economy stays sour and people get more desperate, cops are seeing angry, frustrated citizens on the edge. They're drinking or taking drugs to numb their pain, they're not taking their medications because they can't afford them or simply don't want to, they're involved in repeated domestic incidents and it's scaring the bejabbers out of law enforcement.

That's because as the anger proliferates, officer shooting incidents grow proportionately. Last weekend three Pittsburgh police officers were shot responding to a domestic disturbance.

There have been shootings in Oakland, South Dakota and in our own back yard - Mahomen.

"These situations are so volatile," Hubbard County Chief Deputy Frank Homer said. "They can go from zero to ninety right now."

The uncertainty and explosive potential of dealing with depressed and angry people prompted Hubbard County to send five employees to a 40-hour training course in Bemidji recently, to learn how to diffuse such situations.

Krossen was among the trainees. Homer, arriving back from an out-of-town trip, got to the student's residence in time to see Krossen put his training into action, or more appropriately, words.

"He did a heck of a job," Homer said.

Although the training doesn't certify the graduates to be actual hostage negotiators, it puts them a step in the right direction.

As the department sees more of these cases, Homer wants all department personnel, from the jailers dealing with depressed inmates to the deputies seeing angry folks while on patrol, trained to handle them.

"You just don't know what you're going to encounter," he said. Like the college student, it could be a suicidal call. Or could be a person bent on homicide, or property damage. And, unfortunately, many have weapons.

But Homer admits beyond those surprises, the most discouraging, aggravating aspect of mediating domestic incidents is the repetitive nature of dealing with the same people, time after time.

"It can really drain an officer as far as dealing with the same people," he said.

The thinking is: "Aah, I'm going back there again and how many times have I dealt with these people?" he asked.

"They get an OFP (Order For Protection) or drop it, or they get charged but the charges are dropped or knocked down to nothing," he said. "They won't back up their initial complaint, or basically tell you they won't go to court."

He has to rally the troops in such circumstances.

"We have to tell them not to let it affect your job," Homer said. "You still have to go out and still have to assess the problem and remedy the problem at that given time, make sure you do the paperwork and get it to the County Attorney" so that law enforcement can't be accused of not doing its job.

"They're frustrating for our office as well," said Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne. "What we try to do is bring them to court and still prosecute them to the best of our ability given the circumstances. We may have a witness that's recanting or an uncooperative victim."

A Hubbard County woman recently wondered whether the system had failed when her rural neighborhood was overwhelmed this winter with officers and a SWAT team for a domestic incident. A couple down the road was having a violent disagreement. Cops were called.

The man was charged, posted bond and went back to live in the residence, invited back by the victim, who had the protection order lifted.

Other residents questioned whether the SWAT team was necessary and why local officers couldn't have dealt with the situation,

Domestics, especially in light of the tragedy in Pittsburgh, are tough calls to make and even tougher to second-guess, Homer said.

The woman had been assaulted "and obviously doesn't want to have contact with the male inside. He's in there with a gun and a child and we're outside not knowing what he's gonna do," Homer said. The man was intoxicated and not able to deal rationally with officers, Homer said.

Cops often have to use "their sixth sense," he said, added to their experience and training, when it comes to assessing potentially violent situations. Supervisors are often called to the scene or consulted by phone as the minutes tick by. There's no shame in calling outside the agency for help, and in this case, it was a good idea, Homer said. The female negotiator from Wadena was able to use a soothing voice and talk the man into surrendering.

That's the training Homer hopes will be available to all corners of law enforcement. But it may not ease the frustration of repeat visits when people can't control their anger or return to an unhealthy home life, he admits.

"It's frustrating from a prosecution standpoint," Dearstyne said. He's seeing angrier people, more people losing control.

"I think the economy is certainly affecting a lot of it," he said. "It adds a great deal of stress to the family situation. If a spouse loses a job it adds a huge stress factor and I think with the economy we're going to see a lot more of it, unfortunately.

"Until the economy starts to turn around a little, we'll see more rather than less," Dearstyne said. "Then they throw alcohol or chemicals into the mix and it just adds to the volatility."

But it's the success stories, like one desperate student persuaded to put away his gun, that keeps frustrated officers going, Homer said. And it's the training that allows officers to deal with more situations like it in the future.