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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org