No lying. No promises.
On her first call out as a crisis negotiator with the Westminster Police Department, Det. Norma Vasquez was intently focused on saying the right thing.
“I was a little nervous,” she said. “But when I got on scene, I was more calm than I expected.”
It was Sept. 29, and police responded to a shots fired call in the 13000 block of La Pat Street.
A man was barricaded in his home with a gun, threatening “suicide by cop.”
Police rolled out a Bearcat armored vehicle to protect officers and called Vasquez to negotiate.
One slip, one wrong remark by Vasquez could get someone hurt — or even worse, killed.
“You have to be careful in what you say because there’s always that one thing that you could say under stress that causes them to do something you don’t want them to do,” Vasquez said. “You don’t want to be responsible if something bad happens.”
Crisis negotiators are trained to draw information from suspects to help tactical teams do their job.
Finding out where the suspect is in the house, whether they are armed and whether there are any hostages is the first order of business.
“There are a lot of things to worry about all at once but I just revert to my training,” Vasquez said.
Building a relationship is the next step and arguably the one that takes the most finesse.
Negotiators have to stay calm, listen and be empathetic to the person on the other end of the phone, she said.
Vasquez said being up front with the suspect and never making a promise she can’t deliver also are critical to her job.
“Trust is essential,” she said. “If you want them to trust you and they catch you in a lie, whatever relationship you’ve built up to that point is gone.”
Vasquez spent nearly an hour in negotiations with the man on that Monday night before he peacefully exited the home and was taken into custody.
“I felt a sense of relief,” she said. “I was just happy that everyone was safe.”
On that day, she made a difference in that man’s life and his family members’ lives. That feeling is the reason she decided to pursue a career in law enforcement a decade ago.
A sociology major from UC Riverside, Vasquez started in the field as a community services officer with the South Gate Police Department.
She enrolled in the academy after graduating college and was hired by Westminster PD in November 2004.
“I wanted a career that I knew was going to be different every day,” she said.
Vasquez has been on the crisis negotiation team for nearly two years and, before that, served on the trauma support team and as a public information officer.
She said serving as a negotiator has been one of the many goals she wanted to achieve during her law enforcement career.
“I love talking to people and I love helping people,” she said. “This job is both of those things together.”