Local News

Sebring, Highlands may join forces

HIGHLANDS COUNTY - Sebring police investigator Michael Hirsch got his first taste of law enforcement negotiations when in 2007 he responded to an incident involving a man barricaded in a house. He said, as the first officer on the scene, he made contact with the man and, by the time backup arrived, he built a rapport with him, he said. "Eventually, were able to talk him out of the house," Hirsch said. Hirsch, who has since received training in negotiations, said he would like to become a member of the Highlands County Sheriff's Office's crisis negotiation team.
Currently, the sheriff's office and the Sebring Police Department are working out details of a plan to join forces on the negotiation team, said Capt. Tim Lethbridge, of the sheriff's office. Lethbridge said during the last three call-outs, which involved people barricaded in motel rooms or residences, teams from Sebring and the sheriff's office worked together. "The teams have been working together during the last three call-outs and have been working together well," Lethbridge said. By joining the teams, Lethbridge said more knowledge is available, and in Sebring incidents, Sebring officers "may have first-hand knowledge." Lethbridge said he became a negotiator in 1993 and was involved in several incidents. But for a few years, the sheriff's office's team became inactive until Sheriff Susan Benton wanted it reactivated, he said. Incidents involving call-outs "seem to come in bursts," Lethbridge said. He noted that three have occurred since August 2012, but that it had been months since the last incident previous to that. The team looks for members "who are very good at dealing with people," he said. When an incident occurs, the negotiator and other team members work closely together, he said. It's not the individual effort often portrayed in movies, he said. The idea that a negotiator would enter unarmed the location of where the subject is barricaded — something often portrayed on television — would probably never occur in real life, Lethbridge said. While many situations on television involve hostages, Lethbridge said, he can only remember one such instance in Highlands County. In that instance, a man broke into a house where his girlfriend was hiding from him and held her hostage, but she later escaped, Lethbridge said. Many cases involve someone who is so agitated they are not thinking clearly, he said. The negotiator "helps them think through the situation they are in," he added. Negotiators are "always looking for a peaceful resolution," Hirsch said.

jmeisel@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5834