Blue Line


November 19, 2012  By Readers Digest

A Toronto police negotiator uses his uncommon skill and understanding to end many hostage takings without bloodshed.

by Janice Tyrwhitt

(Re-written from <Reader’s Digest> June 1986)

One Sunday evening in April 1983, Ron Kennedy (not his real name) stood on the landing between the second and third floors of a Toronto town house, holding a knife to his stomach. Below him were five policemen, summoned by his wife to evict him. Kennedy shouted down, “I’m not leaving!” A policeman moved forward, gun in hand.


“If you come up those stairs,” Kennedy warned, “I’ll stab-myself.”

Kennedy, driven to desperation, meant what he said, but he didn’t want to die. He really wanted to rejoin his wife. They had been separated for eight months and she had their three children. He had slipped into depression, drinking and debt.

“Will you talk to another officer on the phone?,” a police officer asked, Kennedy heard a calm, cheerful voice with an English north-country accent: “I’m Roy Lawson. I’m here to help you. Can we talk?”

Kennedy agreed and Lawson went inside, a tall man with an open, big-boned face, unarmed, in civilian clothes. He climbed to the second floor and began asking Kennedy about his troubles.

On Friday, Kennedy said, his wife had asked him to move in with the children while she went away for the weekend. He had been up for 48 hours, spending his nights cleaning. When his wife came back on Sunday he told her, “There’s no way I’m leaving.” She stormed out and called police. They found him with his six-year-old daughter and assumed he was holding the child hostage. As Lawson arrived, Kennedy sent the girl down.

While they talked, Lawson gradually moved up until he was sitting on the step below Kennedy. On the darkened ground floor was a six-man tactical team, armed with guns and tear gas. Lawson could see that Kennedy, white and trembling, was pressing the knife deeply under his rib cage. Lawson asked, “Ron, if I can get your wife to come in and talk, will you put down the knife?”

Kennedy dropped the knife and his wife came to the foot of the stairs. Their brief talk offered hope. After she left, Lawson suggested, “Tell me what’s bothering you.”

Sensing real sympathy, Kennedy felt his fear and anger draining away. This guy’s listening, he cares how I feel. For two hours, they sat talking to each other on the stairs. “You need help and I can get it,” Lawson promised. Kennedy knew that neighbours had gathered in the street and he wanted to leave with dignity. “No handcuffs, no police car,” Lawson assured him and Kennedy went willingly to hospital.

“Roy saved my life,” he says today. “Without him, I would have stabbed myself, or lunged at a officer. He calmed me down and helped me start believing in myself.” He and his wife did not reconcile, but he has since remarried and now lives happily with his new wife and baby and his eldest daughter.

{Captives as collateral}

As co-ordinator of the (then) Metropolitan Toronto Police Force’s 45-member hostage negotiation team, Staff Sgt. Lawson had saved scores of hostages, hostage takers and armed and suicidal people effectively holding themselves hostage. His specialty – defusing human bombs before they kill themselves or others.

“The only acceptable casualty rate is zero,” Lawson said. Over a ten-year period he managed 50 hostage taking incidents without death or injury to anyone – hostages, their captors, police or bystanders. From 1981 to 1986, when he took over as co-ordinator, the entire force had a clean slate: no casualties in more than 700 hostage takings.

“Our record compares favourably with any police force in the world,” said Staff Insp. William Donaldson, head of the Emergency Task Force (ETF) from 1979 to 1983. “Lawson gets the best out of his men. All of our negotiators have taken courses from Roy.”

Toronto Crown Attorney Peter Shoniker, an authority on antiterrorist techniques, said “What makes Roy exceptional is not only his special quality in crisis intervention, but also his judgment of what makes others good negotiators.”

Congenial and soft-spoken, happy at home and work, the 47-year old Lawson exuded optimism. He and his Danish wife, Lis, an elementary school teacher, raised two daughters. Lawson ran at least 15 kilometres a day; this, he believed, gave him serenity while keeping his 6-foot-1 inch frame at a fit 175 pounds. He enjoyed police work, hostage negotiation most of all. “To negotiate in good faith,” he said, “you must really care about your fellow man.”

Born in Derbyshire, England, in November 1938, Lawson was raised in Lancashire, where his widowed mother worked as a weaver. She died when he was 11, but thanks to his 18-year-old brother, who supported him through school and taught him sound values, he developed a generous spirit and a formidable capacity for hard work.

At 18 he immigrated to Canada and in January 1959 joined Toronto police as a cadet. As a probationary sergeant in 1976, he volunteered to join the new hostage-negotiation team headed by Staff Supt. David Cowan, its first commander. When organizing the team he had asked psychiatrists, “How do you relate to people who feel the only solution to their problems is to kill themselves or someone else?” Their guidelines helped him choose 35 initial candidates. One was Roy Lawson.

“From that first day,” Cowan said, “Roy shone. His character, confidence and credentials told me he was the kind we were looking for – a man ready to give that little bit more for his fellow man.”

Based in a patrol division, Lawson was on call 24 hours a day for hostage situations. He was promoted to staff sergeant in 1979 and in 1980 moved full-time to the ETF. There his duties ranged from the subtleties of hostage negotiation to heavily armed raids on murderers and motorcycle gangs. From 1980 to 1984, Lawson lectured police forces across Ontario on hostage negotiation and disaster planning. From 1985 to 1986 he became a consultant to governments, prisons, banks and other private corporations, staging simulated hostage takings and teaching survival techniques.

“In any situation,” said Lawson, “those most in danger are hysterical people who shove the hostage taker over the edge, and the superconfident ones who defy him. He wants to bargain for something. His captives are his collateral. They should do what he says, but help him understand that they’re people too.”

Lawson’s cases were almost all family crises: A man takes his wife or child hostage, or barricades himself in, alone and armed. “These people are under stress and unstable,” Lawson said. “Every case is a cry for help.”

One self-hostage was a 30-year old man who phoned and asked police to look in a mailbox. They found a letter describing his marriage breakdown, psychological problems and an interview with a psychiatrist who fell asleep while listening to him. Enclosed was a diagram of the homemade bomb with which he planned to blow himself up.

With a gun team and three bomb experts, Lawson surrounded the house where the man had barricaded himself. It had no telephone. Calling out to the man, Lawson made him promise that he would let him deliver one. He asked him to lower a rope through a window. Though he was covered by snipers, Lawson felt the hair rise on the back of his neck as he approached, unarmed and fastened a portable field telephone to the rope.

Hauled up into the house, the phone let him begin the delicate transfer of control that makes the hostage taker dependent on the negotiator. The man’s moods shifted like windswept clouds. Lawson listened sympathetically as he poured out his troubles, interjecting only reassurances like, “We’re here to help you,” and “I know you’re not going to hurt anyone.” He used delay as his crucial strategy. Never threatening or belittling, he slowly subdued the man’s self-destructive fantasies.

The man asked for his estranged wife. Against his better judgment, Lawson had her brought to the scene. It was a costly mistake. He jotted down suggestions for her and she read them to her husband. Instantly suspicious, the man said, “He’s telling you what to say!” The credibility Lawson had spent three hours building was almost destroyed.

The man then asked to speak to a church social worker. She restored his trust by answering questions with “You’ll have to ask Roy about that.”

When he agreed to talk to Lawson again, he protested, “You’ll grab me and take me to jail.” Lawson promised not punishment but help and brought a doctor, who offered to admit the man to hospital.

Lawson had been negotiating for eight hours and 300 neighbours and reporters had gathered outside. When at last the man emerged, the crowd broke into applause.

{“I’ve lost him”}

In any hostage situation, Lawson considered that only the hostage taker and his hostages are in danger. Before he would go in for a face-to-face encounter, he talked over the telephone until he had persuaded the person inside to say, “I promise not to hurt you” – a promise none ever broke. When the surrender comes, Lawson made sure the gun team was prepared and relied on their protection: “They’re thinking rationally. I’m still all wrapped up in the situation.”

Later, he was flooded with relief, then fatigue, and after debriefing he unwound by talking with his wife.

Because he had never quite been able to take his own good fortune for granted, Lawson had a special feeling for those who try and fail. He was deeply stirred by a 34-year-old manager of an auto-parts store who had been working 14 hours a day to keep an unprofitable business running.

One Friday his boss told him he was closing down. Jobless, he went home to find that while he had been working overtime, his wife had found a boyfriend; now she had left with their two children.

He took Valium, started drinking beer and phoned his brother to say he was going to kill himself. His brother called police. After agreeing to go to hospital, he came out of his bedroom with a loaded shotgun and ordered the police out.

Lawson, summoned with an ETF weapons team, talked to him by phone and found him deeply despondent. His world had fallen apart, Lawson thought, worrying that he had already lost him. He suggested that losing a thankless job might prove a blessing.

The man’s main concern was his children and Lawson sent an officer to check that they were safe.

After talking five hours the man agreed to surrender. He would leave his shotgun and two .22 rifles in the living room if Lawson would meet him at the door. Though the negotiator normally stays out of sight, Lawson agreed because they had shared so much. The man came out, put his ammunition into Lawson’s hands, threw his arms around him and cried on his shoulder.

Eight months later he telephoned Lawson. “You probably won’t remember me,” he began, “but you saved my life and I want to thank you.” His wife and children had come back and he had found a better job. “That night I had the guts and the state of mind to kill myself,” he told Lawson. “If you hadn’t been there, I would have. Because of you, I didn’t.”

Lawson eventually left the ETF when he was promoted to inspector but continued to play a part in hostage negotiation training.

Jack Pinkofsky, a criminal lawyer with a reputation for scrapping with police witnesses, saw Lawson as a fellow defender. “What’s great about Lawson is that he understands the stresses that cause people to break down,” Pinkofsky said. “One can only hope that his value is so well recognized that every police force will be equipped, not only with high-powered weaponry, but with high-powered intellects like his.”

LAWSON, Roy Ashurst died suddenly in Ajax on Monday, April 9, 2007 in his 69th year.

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