From The Cop Side: A Brief Overview of Hostage Negotiations and Crisis Management

Talk to me. Police want to hear what a hostage taker has to say. Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis give hard line performances as negotiators. Television and the movies make the position look prestigious and exciting. At times it can be both those things, but most often it is just ordinary duty gone unnoticed by the public conducted by a select few law enforcement officials. The tactical teams get all the glory both on screen and off.  Negotiators would not want it any other way.

Each hostage taker or crisis management operation is executed in a different manner and no two are alike. The public may imagine these incidents to be ramrodded by some deranged criminal or terrorist wielding an AR-15 and holding the salt of the earth hostage in some creepy warehouse. Rarely the situation looks like that, and most likely it is a suicidal subject or a domestic situation.

Hostage takers. Who are they? Their personalities range from inmates to political activists, terrorists, mentally ill persons, and mentally unstable individuals. By no means should other personalities be ruled out just because I didn’t mention them above.

Negotiations, whether inclusive of hostages or a single barricaded subject, are comprised of law enforcement techniques  police use to communicate with people who are emotionally driven to take actions to fortify themselves. The craft involves two of the greatest police skills-communication and active listening. Along with these verbal skills are physical skills. Moreover,  tactical operations are simultaneously performed by a special response team.10319623506_3623bbf2ce_o

Citizens may not realize these event operations are slow and tedious. The entire process is very methodical and requires logistical planning, mapping, intelligence teams, tactical support, and other law enforcement functions.

How do police get dangerous people in a personal crisis to change their mind? It takes time and patience. It involves a lot of dialogue between police and suspect(s). There has to be some assumed trust built from a rapport from the negotiator to the suspect and vice versa. This may not be real, but an appearance. In actuality the police may trick the bad guy. A suspect may also create a false sense of security of safety to police when they plan no peaceful resolution. In these cases, negotiations and tactical operations get complicated.

To get a suspect to release a hostage, they often want something in return. I once had a hostage (victim) get upset because I bartered him for a pack of cigarettes and a Big Mac. He thought he was worth more than that. The police thought it was a bargain and a good trade. He came out alive. It didn’t mean his life wasn’t worth more-in fact, his life is priceless. However, it was what the suspect wanted at the time from being worn down by police and a long lapse of time.  I took the opportunity to get him to release the victim. Helicopters and limos are not really the norm of requests the average street cop gets from a hostage taker in these circumstances.

Getting a hostile person to comply is no easy task. A negotiator is the lifeline between the suspect, the hostages, and the rest of the law enforcement on scene. Their job is critical for a safe outcome. Negotiators often stall the suspect to build rapport, gather intelligence, allow tactical operations to set up, and then facilitate safe releases of hostages and/or a surrender.

There are several schools of thought on proper procedures on negotiation processes. Typical methods used include but are not limited to: (1) asking open ended questions, (2) paraphrasing the suspect’s words back to him or her, (3) using empathy, and (4) mirroring. These tactics all try to build rapport or gain compliance to create a behavioral change. Furthermore, police control accessibility, utilities, and communication devices at and into the target location. The only phone or communication device used is controlled by law enforcement so that no outside person interferes or derails the outcome. Public utilities become bargaining chips. The goal is to bring everyone out safely. Ultimately, these operations could vary from a few minutes to several days, so these items become paramount to a suspect over time.  10582094105_4d7d1c3d57_o

Requirements for negotiation positions vary from department to department but often involve a selection process, a long term assignment, and specialized/focused training. In conjunction with law enforcement courses and schools, negotiators are often sent to train with SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams. Training can be lengthy and intense which often includes scenarios and reality based conditions.

Facilitating peaceful resolutions while protecting life during these very intense circumstances are a team effort between communities and law enforcement. The incidents are dynamic. They are scary. Additionally, these events give us an image of a person or person(s) who have become disconnected or so engulfed in a cause that they have strayed from societal norms and morals. All of that creates a grave public safety problem which must be immediately addressed. It is evident police organizations are physically and tactically equipped to handle a crisis. But in these situations, words are extremely powerful-words which have to be chosen wisely. Have you been convinced yet that the police officer’s greatest asset is his or her ability to effectively communicate?