Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
November 13, 2008 Thursday

Standoff defused with art of poise;
Police negotiators rely on calm words

By Heather Haddon


CLIFTON - When a troubled 39-year-old city resident threatened to turn a high-powered rifle on police officers and then himself, police did not end the altercation with a dramatic kick to his front door.

Defusing the tense, three-hour standoff instead required teams of officers trained in the art of crisis response and the patience of a saint.
"It's almost like a chess game," said Sgt. William Gibson, head of the Police Department's Anti-Crime Unit and the lead negotiator outside the Thomas Street house last week. "Time is one of the most important things we have on our side."

Most Passaic County towns rely on the Sheriff's Department to handle crisis negotiations, but some cities maintain their own units. The Sheriff's Department has nine officers trained in resolving standoffs, with Clifton and Paterson police departments employing about 10 negotiators between them.

Passaic County averages a handful of crisis situations a year, according to the Sheriff's Department. They involve suicide threats, domestic disputes and psychologically unstable residents.

To become certified, police officers attend training offered by the FBI. Attendees learn to listen to and gain the trust of an agitated individual to coax him out of a standoff.

"The goal is to become their new best friend," said George Deuchar, a retired captain from the Washington Township Police Department, who teaches crisis negotiation. "You say, 'You don't have to deal with the other police. You just deal with me. I only have a phone, not a gun.' "

Last week, a cellphone became Gibson's link into the white, colonial house at the end of quiet Thomas Street. There, two men were allegedly on a desperate quest for drug money.

According to police, John Kelly, 39, went to his family's home with 36-year-old Kevin Kaye of Franklin, after they were discharged from a drug rehabilitation center earlier that day.

The men demanded money from Kelly's 42-year-old sister. When she refused, they beat her, knocked her to the floor and threw her out of the house, authorities said. She called the police.

The situation escalated when officers arrived. Kelly broke down a closet door housing his father's cache of eight guns and threatened to kill the officers surrounding the premises, according to Gibson. When Gibson reached Kaye on a cellphone, he reported that Kelly wanted to shoot them both.

Officers from throughout the Clifton Police Department responded ? from the patrol division to an animal handler called to deal with two pit bulls in the house. A neighbor's garage was turned into a staging post; an officer sketched the house's layout from a driveway.

"I saw a lot of chaos," said Rose Sanfilippo, a resident of Thomas Street for 47 years. "It was scary."

As officers surrounded the property, Gibson convinced Kaye to leave the house. He then called Kelly. Gibson's evening plans ? hamburgers with his wife before departing on vacation ? vanished from his mind.

"I told him, 'There is no reason for this. This is a minor thing. You come with me, and we'll discuss it,' " Gibson said.

In response, Kelly hung up.

Gibson knew Kelly after arresting him for drug offenses and outstanding warrants over the years, he said. Gibson had gotten to know the Kelly family.

As the talks stalled, Gibson called Kelly's father to the scene. Gibson then asked Kelly if he wanted to see his father. Eventually, Kelly relented, putting down his rifle and coming out the front door. As officers kept him under their watch, Kelly walked over to Gibson's vehicle, kicking a few police cars on the way. There, he found his father.

"They embraced, they hugged," Gibson said. "It was emotional."

On Wednesday, Kelly was being held in the Passaic County Jail in Paterson on $150,000 bail. Kaye was released on his own recognizance.
Both men were charged with possession of a loaded rifle. Kelly was also charged with outstanding warrants and assault. Other charges Kelly faces were not immediately available Wednesday.

Though modest about his role, Gibson acknowledges that his extensive training and personal connection to Kelly helped end the situation peacefully.

"Anything can be negotiated," said Gibson, a 26-year veteran and Clifton resident. "You have to be honest and upfront with what we can and can't do. Then, you gain trust."

Reach Heather Haddon at 973-569-7121 or haddon@northjersey.com