Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Lance Burdett

By Jennifer Dann

As New Zealand Police's top crisis negotiator, Lance Burdett led negotiations with Jan Molenaar during the Napier siege. His book Behind The Tape reveals how he talked 'the mad, the bad and the sad' back from the brink.
Lance Burdett talks about the surprising moment when he experienced "suicide ideation" personally. Photo / Greg Bowker
Lance Burdett talks about the surprising moment when he experienced "suicide ideation" personally. Photo / Greg Bowker

1 What are your key techniques when negotiating with a suicidal person?

Often people get a fright when you start talking to them because they have no idea how they got there. You've got to find out the trigger and stay in that zone - I call it the death zone. Then you find out what's kept them going - that's the hook. Maybe they love their dog, their family, something else - talk to them about that, then go back a bit deeper into what got them there. You take them from the hook to the trigger as you slowly work through their journey. It's a delicate dance. We use active listening skills; asking open-ended questions, using their own words and acknowledging emotions. We don't get people past the depression. It's just what I term shake and take. Most negotiations take one to two hours, the hard ones a bit longer. If it goes much longer it's unlikely to end well.

2 Some of the people you've tried to talk out of suicide are criminals - child molesters and cop killers like Jan Molenaar. How are you able to feel empathy for them?

You don't have genuine empathy but you can still build a rapport. A police officer's sworn oath is to protect life and property no matter what someone has done. Our negotiation team felt disappointment when Jan Molenaar killed himself because we'd failed in our task.

3 In your book you describe talking a 14-year-old boy down from a motorway bridge in Mangere. Why did that case stick with you?

It was probably the closest anyone has ever got to jumping while I have been talking with them. He had one leg dangling over the motorway and he was holding on by his fingertips. He'd recently emigrated from Samoa and was afraid to go home because the teacher was going to tell his parents he hadn't done his homework. It's not uncommon with young Polynesian children. The pressure on them can be intense.

4 Why don't the police let family members talk to a person during a negotiation?

Because that gives the person the opportunity to say goodbye. The person might also be waiting to kill themselves in front of that family member. Family should be at the scene to explain what might be going on in the person's life, but not within sight or hearing.

5 In your 13 years as a police negotiator, only two of your suicide interventions involved women. Why do you think that was?

The suicide rate is three to one for men v women. I think it's the way we process things. Women are better at talking to friends, whereas men bottle it up. We put on that hard face and when stuff gets on top of us we feel like failures.

6 Is the "harden up" attitude prevalent in the police?

It was when I joined the police in 1992. That reflected wider society at the time. I went to my boss for help when I was a detective sergeant struggling with three major High Court cases. His reply was, "We're all under pressure. You've just got to dig it in." But eventually things build up. You work harder and faster, ignoring the adrenalin from fight or flight feelings, you go to bed and the demons come, your brain is flooded with negative, irrational thoughts so you don't sleep properly and everything compounds.

7 What made you realise you were mentally unwell?

I was photocopying on the fifth floor of the Auckland Central Police Station and I looked out the window and thought, "Not high enough". I knew what suicide ideation was but it took a moment to recognise it. I walked straight back to my office, phoned the police chaplain and said, "I think I'm in trouble." Luckily I was still conscious enough to get help. Three of my police colleagues have committed suicide.

8 How did you regain your mental health?

I went to see a psychologist who diagnosed accumulated stress disorder. He gave me St John's Wort and a lot of brain exercises. Some people call them meditation - I call them visualisation techniques. So I tried and it was surreal - I could hear the birds, I could see everything with clarity. This stuff does work. I'd love to say it was a quick fix but you can't just go through the motions. You've got to commit. It takes three to five years.

9 You've worked in almost every branch of the police over 22 years. Which were the best and worst?

Looking after Prime Minister Helen Clark and VIPs was really cool. The protection team are highly trained, efficient professionals. No two days are the same. The toughest was managing the 111 Comms Centre. You're juggling risk like you wouldn't believe. The jobs are coming in one after another, alarms are going off, you've got three supervisors coming to you for decisions ... I hated police pursuits. It would be really helpful to have GPS locators in police cars so supervisors can see in real time what speed the car is actually doing.

10 Your book contains a heart-wrenching description of a sudden infant death case you attended. Why did it inspire you to take wider action?

What's so tragic about SIDS is the family has done nothing wrong but police were required to ask parents blaming questions like, "Did you smoke around the baby?" "What's your alcohol intake?" "Was there a heater in the room?" "Was the window open?" When I became Inquest Sergeant I asked if I could come up with national guidelines for doing it better. We now gather evidence in other ways, like taking photos and examining the scene. We still have to take the baby away for the post mortem. One officer told me she had to prise a baby out of a mum's arms. Another had to pass a baby out of a window because the family were going to attack him. The sooner the post mortem can be done the better quality the evidence. It's how you go about the process that is important.

11 Did you always want to join the police?

I didn't join the police until I was 35. I was a builder before that. As a kid, I got up to a lot of mischief. We moved around a lot because Dad was in the air force. I had a pass to the air force base but I preferred to go over or under the fence, just for the thrill of it. I had a group of like-minded friends who used to push the boundaries. The worst thing we did was shoplifting a few lollies.

12 Do you regret not spending more time with your family?

That's my biggest regret. Having your dad as a cop is hard for families, especially on kids. Research shows the children of police officers often get depression and some suffer secondary PTSD if they hear or see too much. I thank my wife for putting up with me because you do get so engrossed in the work.

Where to get help

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Behind The Tape by Lance Burdett, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $36.99.

- NZ Herald

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