This Anaheim PD officer thrives as a tactical negotiator who saves suicidal people's lives

By Marc Ballon

Officer Sandoval remembers the day nearly 25 years ago when the police came to her house.

On that fateful day, the police, in response to a family disturbance, showed up at the then 8-year-old’s home. Her mother and father, both Mexican immigrants, struggled to communicate in their broken English. Sandoval, nervous and eager to help, repeatedly interrupted and offered to translate. Officers banished her and her sister to another room.

“I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘I’m going to be a cop,’” said Sandoval “I’m going to be a nice cop. I’m going to be able to talk to people in Spanish.”

And so she has.

Xxxxx. Photo by Sgt. Daron Wyatt, PIO Anaheim PD

APD Officer Lucy Sandoval (left) brings a 35-year-old man to safety who on May 9 threatened to jump off an overpass on the 57 Freeway. Photo by Sgt. Daron Wyatt, PIO Anaheim PD

Sandoval, her empathy matched only by her smarts, is one of eight members of Anaheim’s prestigious Tactical Negotiating Team. She and her “family,” as she calls her colleagues, coax potential suicide victims to come down from the ledge; help defuse hostage situations with steady calm; and persuade barricaded, armed assailants to put down their weapons and give up peacefully.

Over the past eight years, Sandoval has served as primary negotiator on numerous occasions, including potential suicides. Through her active listening, compassion and willingness to show she cares, Sandoval has saved lives and prevented many a volatile situation from exploding into violence.

“Lucy is a valued member of the negotiating team who cares deeply about her job and the people she serves,” said Sgt. Steve Pena, supervisor of the Anaheim PD’s negotiating unit. “She has a sense of calmness and sincerity that reaches through people in a crisis.”

“I feel blessed,” said Sandoval, who became an Anaheim Police Explorer at 16, Police Cadet at 18 and full-fledged officer at 21. “I almost feel like the reason I chose this profession is to be there for people in need.”

On May 9, she displayed her singular talent.

Lucy Sandoval, an Anaheim PD officer who is also tactical negotiator, talks about the rewards of helping people through one of the most stressful moments of their lives. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

APD Officer Lucy Sandoval talks about the rewards of helping people through one of the most stressful moments of their lives.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Receiving an urgent early morning call for a Spanish-speaking negotiator, Sandoval rushed to the 57 Freeway. There, a 35-year-old man dangled from the overpass, threatening to jump. Sandoval went to work.

A CHP officer on the scene gave her the number of the man’s former girlfriend and mother of his two children. After a five-minute conversation with the woman, Sandoval learned the man’s name, that he worked in construction and came from Mexico.

When CHP officers summoned her to try to talk him down him down, Sandoval felt ready.

She approached slowly, standing about three feet away. Sandoval introduced herself, said she had come to help and asked him to come down, lest he accidentally slip. He ignored her. Undeterred, Sandoval addressed him by his name and asked whether she could call him by that. He agreed. Sandoval then told him she had just spoken to his ex and asked his children’s names. “That opened the door,” she said.

“I’m just the worst father,” he said. “I’ve made so many bad decisions, drinking.”

Sandoval, making eye contact the entire time, reassured him. “Look,” she said. “We all make mistakes.”

He began to cry. Sandoval had broken through.

Xxxxx. Photo by Sgt. Daron Wyatt, PIO Anaheim PD

A suicidal man on an overpass of the 57 Freeway talks to APD Officer Lucy Sandoval. Photo by Sgt. Daron Wyatt, PIO Anaheim PD

When the man told her that he feared going to jail, alluding to a DUI and past criminal behavior, Sandoval allayed his fears. Then they talked about his son’s upcoming soccer game.

“I will be with you until you get off the bridge,” Sandoval said. “You can do this.”

Minutes later, the potential “jumper” came down. He was handcuffed, escorted to her car and taken to a hospital for evaluation.

“My hope is to bring calm to a stressful situation,” Sandoval said. “My mindset is they are still with us, here alive and have a chance to live. There is something holding them back. It’s my job to find out what it is.”

Her extensive training has prepared her well for dealing with such crises. After becoming a member of Anaheim’s Tactical Negotiating Unit, Sandoval underwent 40 hours of negotiation training.

Through lectures, readings and role-playing, she learned how to listen to those in distress rather than talk over them or bombard them with questions. She learned the importance of acknowledging the pain of those threatening to harm themselves and others, while simultaneously trying to reduce stress and tension levels. She learned how to patiently draw out people by asking the right questions and offering reassurance.

Lucy Sandoval, an Anaheim PD officer who is also tactical negotiator, talks about the rewards of helping people through one of the most stressful moments of their lives. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Lucy Sandoval is a member of the APD’s Tactical Negotiating Unit.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

On top of that initial training, her team meets monthly to discuss ways to increase effectiveness. They also debrief one another on recent emergency situations and what worked best. The Anaheim group also attends quarterly meetings with the California Association of Hostage Negotiators, Sandoval said.

She stresses that successful negotiations result from collaboration, with each member of the negotiating team playing an important role. In the 57 Freeway incident, for instance, Sgt. T. Lopez, her supervisor, served as her secondary negotiator, making sure Sandoval remained safe so she could focus exclusively on the man threatening to kill himself. Members of the Anaheim Police negotiating team, she added, often call one another before or after an important negotiation for support and advice.

Still, sometimes negotiators have to strike out on their own.

Such was the case four years ago at the Marriot Hotel on Harbor Boulevard.

When Sandoval arrived on the rooftop, she saw a 16-year-old boy standing on the edge of an elevated ledge with his back to everybody. Instead of gathering information about him, she walked directly toward him.

She introduced herself and asked the boy to give her a chance, to turn around and talk to her. To her relief, he did. Sandoval noticed he wore a baseball shirt with his team logo. “Tell me about your baseball team,” she said.

The boy soon began to cry, saying he could no longer endure the constant bullying. The abuse had crushed his spirit.

“I deal with bullies out here every day, and they want to win,” Sandoval said. “We can’t let them win. Your teammates care about you. Aren’t they like your brothers? Your parents care about you.”

About thirty minutes later, the boy came down. Sandoval rushed to his side.

“This was one where I walked away and said a little prayer,” she said. ‘”Thank you for letting me be here for a teenager.”’