SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio police officials have defended the harsh and at times rude language used by the department’s crisis negotiators during several barricaded subject incidents in the past several months.
During the most recent encounter, an 18-hour negotiation with a man under an unfinished Highway 90 flyover just before Christmas, a negotiator compared the man to a rat hiding under a bridge.
“This is the Christmas they’ll remember. Their dad hiding under a bridge. You failed them. This is pathetic,” negotiators said at various times over a loudspeaker, according to footage shared with KSAT.
The suspect, Mark Anthony Hessbrook, eventually surrendered without further incident.
“It may not seem pretty. Police work as a whole is not always pretty. And that’s not an excuse, that’s just a reality,” said Officer Harold Anderson, a nearly 17-year veteran of SAPD who has served on the agency’s Crisis Negotiation Detail for the past decade.
Anderson said during the December incident even though the “initial call was for a suicide, for a jumper,” negotiators soon established that Hessbrook was not a threat to jump.
“Initially, when we get calls it’s our duty to find out exactly what’s going on. Because even patrol or even family, whoever reports it, they don’t know the whole story, they get snippets,” said Anderson.
He said clips of video of the incident, including a widely shared post on the social media app TikTok, do not provide the full context of the encounter.
“Preservation of life is our utmost, the department’s utmost, the unit’s utmost goal,” said Anderson.
As a cold front moved into San Antonio, Hessbrook began to show signs of being cold and department officials feared he could fall asleep or fall from the unfinished flyover.
Anderson said negotiators turned to using provoking language in hopes of keeping constant conversation with Hessbrook, who had become less engaging with negotiators.
“After 18 hours we got him down unharmed. We’re negotiators, that’s our definition. We negotiate,” said Anderson.
“For 48 hours, nothing but insults to him.”
Harsh language was also directed at a barricaded subject during a 48-hour standoff on Diamondback Trail in mid-September.
Suspect Baldemar Martinez barricaded himself inside a mobile home and was considered armed and dangerous after neighbors saw him throwing bottles and shooting at his dog.
One neighbor who spoke to KSAT about the standoff described the approach of SAPD negotiators.
“For two solid days, for 48 hours, nothing but insults to him,” the man said.
Weeks earlier, at a Stone Oak apartment complex in August, SAPD negotiators spent 76 hours trying to convince Sone Quintero Rojas to surrender peacefully.
Rojas, who was wanted on out-of-county arrest warrants, including murder, was armed and moved between the apartment and its balcony, at times communicating with handwritten messages.
Negotiators at various points called Rojas a liar and a disappointment and accused him of having “fake tears.”
“You’re already probably dehydrated from crying so much yesterday,” said one negotiator, in footage captured by KSAT.
Electricity was cut off to the apartment, leaving Rojas without air conditioning in the sweltering heat.
Rojas eventually surrendered.
Anderson, who said he played a role in all three high-profile negotiations, pointed out that the team works as a cohesive unit and assesses what approach to use based on the person’s frame of mind.
“Everything that is done out there is collective,” said Anderson.
Greg Pratt, a retired FBI crisis negotiator who was assigned to San Antonio for his entire 22-year career, said he went through SAPD’s negotiator school and found it to be very professional, ranking it up there with the FBI negotiator school.
Pratt said it is important to start crisis negotiations with a soft touch and active listening, but as the situation evolves, negotiators adapt to the scenario and to a person’s personality traits.
Asked about the social media videos from the December incident on the highway flyover, Pratt said: “It doesn’t play well in the media, obviously, but to make a fair assessment of that negotiation as a whole, you had to be there the entire time.”
“People don’t barricade themselves because they are having a great time.”
Ananda Tomas, executive director of the police accountability group ACT 4 SA, said she will continue to push for non-police mental health crisis response teams to respond to incidents like these.
“I think any of these instances, if it’s a barricaded subject, first off, it’s a mental health crisis. People don’t barricade themselves because they are having a great day,” said Tomas.
She said negotiators should use a lens of compassion when dealing with suspects, even those with a prior criminal history.
“I can tell you that being called a rat and told that I’ve been a disappointment to my son my entire life is what would push me over the edge,” said Tomas.
Anderson noted that a person’s previous criminal history has no bearing on how negotiators speak to him or her.