Police show how they deal with tense stand-offs

Officers demonstrate use of negotiations and forced entry to save lives in such situations

Special Operations Command officers breaching a door during a demonstration at the Home Team Tactical Centre on Tuesday.
Special Operations Command officers breaching a door during a demonstration at the Home Team Tactical Centre on Tuesday.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

It was the second time in two months that the elderly woman had locked herself in her rental flat and threatened to harm herself or jump out of the window.

But following a stand-off that lasted just under five hours, police officers were able to enter her flat without damaging property and secure psychiatric help for her at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

The incident happened in 2018, said the commander of the Central Police Division, Assistant Commissioner of Police Gregory Tan Siew Hin, when asked about memorable stand-offs he had been involved in.

AC Tan was speaking at the Home Team Tactical Centre on Tuesday, during a media event at which the police demonstrated how negotiations and forced entries are used in a stand-off.

He said that stand-off incidents where people display symptoms of mental health conditions are the most unpredictable.

"In some cases, officers managed to break the door quickly enough, or find a way to crawl through windows to stop the person and save a life.

"There were also incidents where officers were not able to reach the person in time to stop them from ending their lives," he said, noting that stand-offs usually arise from people evading arrest or contemplating suicide.

Some incidents involve those who may be of unsound mind.

In the elderly woman's case, officers visited her after she returned from her treatment at IMH and won her trust. The treatment had also helped her.

The demonstrations on Tuesday came after a number of incidents this year had made the headlines.

In February, officers had to force their way into a Toa Payoh flat after a 64-year-old man locked himself in his room and threatened to commit suicide.

In the room, the man was seen holding a canister of butane fuel and a lighter in his hands before he is said to have charged towards the officers.

The man was arrested after he allegedly stabbed a police officer in the thigh.

The officer is no longer in hospital.

Another incident last month involved a 38-year-old man who had locked himself inside a residential unit.

Officers entered the unit nearly four hours after the initial call for help. They had assessed that the man posed a danger to himself.

He was arrested under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act. He was also investigated for consumption of controlled drugs.

The longest stand-off lasted 17 hours. It involved a drug abuser who took his girlfriend's toddler hostage in a Sembawang flat in 2016.

Such situations can be difficult to handle, especially since the approach is to minimise harm and uncertainty, said AC Tan. "This is why we need so many resources."

These resources include the Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU) and Special Operations Command.

The CNU includes police officers and psychologists who are trained in negotiation tactics.

One of the tools of their trade is active listening, said principal psychologist Ho Hui Fen.

"We will reflect certain content and certain words that a person may be saying. We may try to reflect feelings, try to mirror what they are feeling," she said.

But handling these incidents can take an emotional toll on psychologists, said Ms Ho.

"It can be heart-wrenching to see some family members having to cope with the struggles they are having with the person, especially those with chronic mental health issues who can be violent or suicidal. The psychologists do check in, talk and share with one another as a coping mechanism," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2021, with the headline 'Police show how they deal with tense stand-offs'. Subscribe