Police negotiators and suicide crisis: a mixed-methods examination of incident details, characteristics of individuals and precipitating factors

By Megan L. Steele, Lisa Wittenhagen, Carla Meurk, Jane Phillips, Bobbie Clugston, Peter Heck, Elissa Waterson & Ed Heffernan

Published 2 July 2023

Key findings:

Police negotiators are in a position to prevent suicide through timely, tactful and appropriate communication with individuals experiencing suicidal distress.

What’s the issue

Police are frequently the first responders required to attend incidents involving people experiencing a crisis. Police attending incidents where a person is experiencing a suicidal crisis requires specialised negotiation skills to de-escalate suicidal distress and guide the person to safety.

Globally, a number of communication models are used by police to guide negotiations with individuals experiencing suicidal distress. Published research regarding these models and negotiation techniques that support the prevention of suicide has occurred internationally. However, no studies regarding police negotiations and suicide prevention in Australia have been published.

This study aimed to analyse situational characteristics of negotiation incidents and outcomes recorded as ‘suicide interventions’ by police negotiators in Queensland.

What was done?

Researchers analysed the frequency and situational characteristics of incidents involving suicidal distress in Queensland using data between 2012 and 2014. The database consisted of 120 fields, including the location, context and duration of incidents, demographic and health details of those involved, involvement of weapons, resolution information and whether any injuries or deaths occurred, and a narrative report on the incident. Researchers then conducted a qualitative analysis of incident reports. The incidents were categorised based on various details, including precipitating factors and experiences.

What was found?

Precipitating factors and experiences were extracted from 83 (53%) narrative reports. No precipitating factors or experiences were identified for 73 (47%) incidents due to difficult, limited, or no communication between individuals experiencing distress and police. Where communication between the individual and the police occurred, it was found that 83% were described as experiencing a mental health problem.

Of the information that was extracted, relationship issues were the most commonly reported precipitating factor, followed by financial and work issues. More than half of the incidents involved drugs and alcohol.

Why are findings important?

Police negotiators are in a position to prevent suicide through timely, tactful and appropriate communication with individuals experiencing suicidal distress.

The researchers suggest that the high rates of mental health problems in the data cohort indicate that police negotiators would benefit from support through further mental health training or access to real-time mental health service support to strengthen negotiation techniques.

An analysis of past and current communications and suicide outcomes could inform future approaches to police negotiations to support the prevention of suicide.