In the picture-perfect world of Hollywood, hostage negotiations often have happy endings. But in the real world of policing, these crises often have fatal consequences for hostages, suspects, innocent bystanders and law enforcement officers.
Like a well-written Hollywood script, however, the goal of any hostage negotiation is to bring the crisis to a close without the loss of lives.
With improved communications systems, alarm systems and faster response times, first responders now have the advantage of arriving in the early stages — before things get out of control.
As the first arriving officer, remember that time is on your side; the longer the incident goes, the calmer it becomes. Time decreases anxiety and stress, while giving tactical and negotiating units a chance to set up, plan and initiate specific techniques.
Securing The Premises
When you have confined that hostages are indeed being held, a series of procedures must be set in motion.
First and foremost is the safety of the officer. Under no circumstances should you place yourself in danger. Seek cover. From a position of safety, attempt to block any escape path accessible to the hostage-taker. Then, immediately advise your dispatcher of the following:
- Your exact location
- The exact specifics of the incident
- The exact location of the suspect(s) and hostage(s)
- Advisements and/or warnings to responding units.
After the above is accomplished, the first officer on the scene must realize he or she should assume command of the incident until relieved by a superior officer. This entails:
- Establishing perimeters, inner, outer
- Establishing a temporary command post
- Directing responding units to specific locations
- Evacuating unaffected civilians from the area
At the outset of a crisis incident, you'll also find that civilian volunteers may try to negotiate with the suspect. Although they may claim to be acquaintances or relatives of the individual, do not allow them to make contact with the suspect(s). Their contact may aggravate and/or push the suspect into more aggressive behavior. As the first officer on-scene, you should try to control the entire situation.
Make No Promises
The actions you take during a crisis incident may indeed set the stage for a successful outcome or a tragic conclusion. If pushed into a conversation with a hostage-taker, under no circumstances should you promise anything. If promise are made at this point in time, further negotiations may be hindered. Never agree to change places with the hostage. This serves no purpose and quite possibly may be exactly what the hostage-taker is hoping for. Most importantly, note any demands made by the suspect. Upon the arrival of the negotiators, these demands become extremely important in terms of understanding the motives and intentions of the hostage-taker(s). for obvious reasons, never supply a weapon.
As in all incidents of this nature, firearms discipline is extremely important. As the first officer arriving on-scene, tension levels are high, causing the possibility of emotional outbursts from all those involved. From a negotiator's viewpoint, words can always be taken back-bullets can't.[PAGEBREAK]
Extremely important information, both tactical and situational, may be gathered and passed from the first officer on-scene to additional responding units. As stated previously, the specific location of the hostage taker(s) and hostage(s), along with any demands, must be forwarded. Further intelligence may include but, not be limited to:
- Description of suspect(s) and hostage(s)
- Detailed drawing of incident location
- Weapons present and/or available to the suspect(s) and any injuries
Remember that intelligence gatherings is an ongoing process that consistently must be updated throughout the duration of the incident. In addition, it is imperative to ensure that all involved personnel remain updated with current intelligence. Effective gather of all pertinent information is vital to the successful outcome of a hostage incident.
A simple checklist may be utilized by the first officer on-scene of a hostage incident:
- Locate the hostage taker(s) and victim(s)
- Evaluate the incident and deploy necessary assistance
- Communicate the pertinent information to all units involved
- Isolate and maintain perimeter control of the incident
- Evaluate civilian personnel
Sometimes, due to certain circumstances beyond your control, you may find yourself thrust into the position of actually negotiating with the hostage-taker. Possibly, the suspect initiates dialogue immediately upon your arrival. Or your agency may simply not have a trained negotiator to send to the scene. Either way, you may need to employ the following techniques when speaking with the individual:
Remain calm — The suspect(s) will probably be extremely excited, nervous and unpredictable. It will be your job to calm him down. Speak in a slow, unemotional tone of voice. Attempt to put the hostage taker at ease.
Strive to build trust — Get the suspect(s) to believe what you are saying. If possible, do not lie to him. If you find that you must lie (for instance, telling him the chief is out of town if he demands to see him), do not get caught. Make a "lie sheet" and make sure everyone involved is aware of every lie written on the sheet. Generally speaking, the sooner you build trust and rapport between you and the hostage-taker, the quicker the crisis will be resolved.
Listen to the suspect — By doing so you're allowing the suspect(s) to vent his emotions, thereby lowering his anxiety level and, in turn, calming the situation. Additionally, valuable intelligence may be obtained by allowing the hostage-taker free reign to say what he wants.
Do not argue with the suspect(s) — Try not to judge and/or condemn him, remembering that building rapport is a key step in negotiating.
Indicate you are not in a position to make decisions — The hostage-taker may attempt to make you grant certain demands made by him. Simply advise him that you are not in position of authority; therefore, you are unable to grant any demand without first checking with your superiors.[PAGEBREAK]
Reinforce the concept that you can, on the other hand, guarantee the fact that he will not be harmed and/or killed. During the duration of the incident, keep in mind that your goal is to keep communications open. As long as the suspect(s) is talking, most violent acts probably will not occur.
Words of Wisdom
When the fist officer on-scene makes contact with a hostage-taker, the officer is betting that his words and savvy can prevent further violence and can set the hostages free.
Exactly what happens will depend in large part on the negotiator's personal creativity, talent for persuasion, alertness and knowledge of applied psychology.
Should you, as the first responder, become a negotiator, you must come across as a helpful mediator-someone who passes on problems and demands and one who relays responses from superior officers. If you come across as sincere, chances are he'll be more receptive and cooperative.
To open communications, choose a non-threatening positive statement, such as: "I am here to help you." If the hsostage0taker makes a demand, consider countering with, "First I want to get to know you." This will:
- Allow firsthand intelligence gathering
- Shows interest in the suspect
- Give the suspect an opportunity to talk about himself, thus, defusing tension and possibly revealing ways you might reach him or buy time
- Establish that the negotiation is going to be a give-and-take situation.
As a first responder, reassure the suspect that the police do not want to kill him. While there's no "fail safe" strategy, some basic negotiation strategies are more successful than others.
Sizing Up The Enemy
Generally speaking, hostage-takers fall into four broad,, often overlapping categories:
- Cornered criminals
- Mentally disturbed persons
- Inmates in jail or prisons
First responders are most likely to encounter either the trapped criminal or mentally disturbed individual. Hostage takers are often motivated by:
- Temporary mental breakdown connected with the trauma of trying to cope with society
- Feelings of inadequacy or a craving for power
- Chronic and severe mental illness; and
- Real or imagined abuses by the "system"
Terrorist hostage-takers are among the most difficult to handle and are least likely to be encountered by most officers. Terrorists are especially dangerous because they:
- Carefully plan a hostage taking as part of their strategy
- May be ready to die for their "cause"
- Often have ample weapons and outside support
- May be well trained and fearful of betraying their group
With all types of hostage-takers, buying time is one of the best contributions a first responder can make. Hostage-takers are most likely to talk sense with you, as they have a chance to calm down and reassess their own situation.
As with any type of crisis incident test, hostage incidents test the various capabilities of all those who are involved. As in many situations, teamwork is essential. Since you may become a vital link in this team effort someday, you should remember to remain alert and skilled in the necessary functions of the first officer on the scene.
Capt. Cecil Pearson (Ret.) is a consultant specializing in the areas of jail, prison, and police custodial care standards, crisis intervention; hostage negotiations; jail disorder management, and expert testimony. He is a graduate of the National FBI Academy.