How to Start a Crisis Negotiation Team

When on scene, most tactical teams contain more testosterone than a crowd at a British soccer match. But there is one balancing element that keeps it all in perspective. The crisis negotiation team steps up to play a vital role in this very real life-or-death game of wits.

So the suspect is holed up in an old building. You and other responding officers have followed all the right steps like backing off, establishing a perimeter, and taking cover. Now, the situation becomes more complex and dangerous because no one can tell what’s taking place inside.

Your patrol supervisor runs the scenario up the chain of command. The decision is made for a special unit callout. SWAT officers are summoned. They arrive, gear up, and assemble. The SWAT commander meets with the incident commander, plans are drawn, and the team goes into action.

When on scene, most tactical teams contain more testosterone than a crowd at a British soccer match. But there is one balancing element that keeps it all in perspective. The crisis negotiation team steps up to play a vital role in this very real life-or-death game of wits.

Filling a Need

Negotiation is nothing new in law enforcement circles. Street officers have been using different variations on this approach to generate voluntary compliance from suspects and the public for decades.

However, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that both the New York City Police Department and the FBI separately, yet almost simultaneously, developed training programs to instruct officers in a hostage negotiation system. It was designed to talk the bad guys, especially terrorists, into freeing hostages.

By late in the decade, it became apparent that there was more than hostage negotiation that could be accomplished using this technique. Just about every major law enforcement agency in the country had bought into the concept. And police negotiators promptly established a reputation for successful, nonviolent resolution for a range of different incidents. Negotiators began to go beyond their traditional roles of dealing strictly with barricade situations to handling a laundry list of other situations such as high-risk warrant service, suicide attempts, workplace and school violence, kidnappings, and a host of domestic incidents. The gradual evolution to a multi-functional entity made the crisis negotiation team more cost efficient in the eyes of administrators.

Today, while a majority of police agencies within the United States have included this effective tool in their response arsenal, a surprising 42 percent, mostly smaller rural departments, still lack this valuable emergency resource.

Team Justification

The principal rationale for establishing a crisis negotiation team is improving response time to a critical incident.

While time usually favors law enforcement in crisis situations, the increased frequency and levels of force used by suspects is on the rise. Because of the bad guys’ growing propensity for violence, the public has a new elevated expectation of professionalism from law enforcement agencies…as do the courts that dole out huge settlements against municipalities for malfeasance and liability actions.

Because of the prohibitive price tag that comes with forming and maintaining a team, many smaller agencies have banded together to form regional forces. This shared system offers the participants most of the benefits of a dedicated in-house team without the hefty budgetary expenditure.

To get funding and political backing to start a crisis negotiation team, you must communicate to your administration that the use of a crisis negotiation team provides a win-win solution for any agency dealing with stand-offs. The team utilizes minimal force, limiting the risk of death or serious injury to officers, hostages, and suspects.

Candidate Selection

There are many considerations in selecting candidates for a crisis negotiation team. What the past 30 years have taught us is that the best negotiators start out as the best investigators.

When interviewing for crisis negotiators, look for personal characteristics such as interview and interrogation skills, ability to deal well with stressful situations, and an easy-going, non-confrontational approach that allows the suspension of judgment.

Needless to say, all team members must be willing to relentlessly sharpen their craft and be available for assignment 24 hours a day, seven days a week at a moment’s notice. Other crucial aspects of a successful crisis negotiator include maturity, the ability to work well under pressure, and a team player attitude.

And don’t just look at people you would consider for the SWAT team as potential candidates. Some members can contribute abilities that add a deeper dimension to the crisis negotiation team. Qualified female members can provide a sense of calm and reassurance for many subjects, while multilingual members can establish a special rapport by speaking to subjects in their native tongue.


As in all aspects of police work, one round of training does not an expert make. Negotiators must undergo demanding preparation and instruction to continually bring intense emergency situations under control.

And make no mistake, crisis negotiators are not therapists. Negotiators differ from their counseling counterparts in many ways. Counselors seek to explore a person’s problems and maladies through a long and in-depth comprehensive personal exploration. The negotiator isn’t interested in making a subject feel better about himself unless it serves a purpose. He deals with a single specific goal: Concluding the incident in the most expeditious and peaceable manner possible.

Many street officers believe crisis negotiators possess the “gift of gab” or natural speaking ability, but this is only half true. Accomplished negotiators develop several key skills, with the most critical being the ability to carefully listen to detail.

The term “active listening” is used to describe a plethora of interactive techniques that build a bridge of objectivity, understanding, and empathy between the negotiator and the subject. Even patrol officers could benefit immensely from training in these listening skills.

The technique is based on the subject’s feelings and values. Usually, when a negotiator comes upon a scene, he or she establishes contact by telephone, either a dedicated cell line or a direct hard line called a “throw phone.” Once he’s developed a rapport with the subject, the two share common experiences and the subject is allowed to vent his dangerous emotions, hopefully returning them to a more normal, levelheaded state. This is achieved by mastering the six basic active listening skills:

Reflecting, or mirroring, is simply repeating the last phrase using the subject’s words and turning it into a question. This provides reassurance to the subject that someone is listening.

I-Messages provide a feedback loop for the subject’s action by the negotiator. For example, “I am feeling (negotiator’s feeling) when you (subject behavior) because (reason).”

Minimal encouragers are sounds to let the subject know he’s being heard. Examples include “ah-huh” and “Oh really?” These interjections encourage additional conversation.

Open-ended questions cannot be answered with simple “yes” or “no” responses and so tend to elicit in-depth information regarding the subject’s state.

Use of silence is an effective technique, since most people are uncomfortable with any pause in conversation and will fill it in by talking.

Emotional paraphrasing involves the negotiator summarizing what the subject has just said, clarifying that the negotiator is hearing the subject and showing that the negotiator is interested in what he has to say. For example, “Are you saying (what was heard)?”

Training in these communication techniques as well as the entire negotiation method are offered by a variety of organizations such as the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), state and regional law enforcement academies, and the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

A course of instruction for crisis negotiators should be at least 40 hours in length and cover an array of topics, including team composition and supervision, the tactical operations center model, categories of crisis situations, available tactical options, and dealing with stress. Also, it should incorporate field exercises such as role-playing in a simulated environment to help officers hone their negotiation skills.

The learning component is vitally important to this specialty. In addition to the traditional firearms skills and operational tactics all cops study, crisis negotiators must maintain superb interpersonal skills at all times. Constant education and preparation help to ensure team members will be able to hone entry-level talents into professional expertise.

Team Overview

Before beginning a crisis negotiation team, it’s important to understand the command structure needed to operate effectively. At the most basic level, the system is a triangle formed by an incident commander, who is ultimately responsible for the entire scene; the tactical side of the house (SWAT), for possible threat neutralization; and crisis negotiators, the first and preferred option in the process.

The incident commander calls the shots as the top decision maker and an overseer of the larger operation at the base of the triangle. With a peaceful outcome as the desired goal, the negotiation option is usually seen as an opportunity to engage the subject.

Keep in mind, while there is a protocol in negotiations, scripted or standardized procedures are not etched in stone. Therefore, flexibility and adaptation are key elements in the tactical operations model. Each incident has special characteristics such as the subject or subjects involved, the location, or the circumstances. Every negotiation is unique in this respect, which is why it’s often referred to as an art form.

When it comes to actual communication between the parties there are a few hard-and-fast rules. First and foremost, four heads are better than one. The more qualified negotiators on the scene, the more opinions and expertise there are to draw from.

Never negotiate alone or allow an untrained individual to communicate with the subject. This includes all upper rank brass. There is an old saying: “Negotiators don’t command and commanders don’t negotiate.”

Before any contact with the subject takes place, a thorough background should be established. Investigating the subject will be an ongoing effort for the length of the incident. Interviews will be conducted with neighbors, family members, co-workers, and the responding officers involved.

This intelligence has a dual purpose. It is useful in determining the style of negotiations that will take place, while providing the SWAT unit with tactical information, if a command decision is made to use the force option.

A crisis negotiation team must consist of a minimum of four members, including a lead or primary negotiator, a secondary or backup negotiator, a logistics negotiator, and an incident command liaison. Each role is interdependent upon the other. Therefore, functioning as a cohesive group is vital.

The role of the primary negotiator is to establish contact and initiate conversation with the subject. The goal is to establish a rapid, yet trusting relationship culminating in the termination of the seizure.

Secondary negotiator responsibilities include conferring with and providing support for the primary, preserving an atmosphere conducive to negotiation in the tactical operations center.

The logistics negotiator or “timekeeper” is accountable for documenting the details of the negotiation, sometimes utilizing both written and voice recording. This provides a chronological record that is useful in training for future negotiations, as well as court evidence.

Finally, the incident command liaison is the negotiation team’s go-between with the decision-making authority and tactical operations. The liaison will pass on intelligence and arrange coordination with them involving key stages of the incident such as suspect demands and threats of suicide.

All team members have input into the negotiation process by offering suggestions and techniques to accelerate progression of the talks.

The Glue That Binds

While on the surface it appears the tactical and negotiation teams’ missions are at odds, the two must actually work together to bring about successful conclusions to these incidents. This spirit of collaboration should be fostered when first developing a crisis negotiation team.

The SWAT team function is multi-faceted and specialized. Its contribution to the total tactical operations control model cannot be overemphasized. There is a recognized need to establish and control a perimeter and have a strategic plan in place in case negotiations fail.

Moreover, winning negotiations still depend upon the tactical side to act as a capture team by providing the secure setting for a peaceful, arranged surrender.

Understanding this, the nation’s best teams train together on a regular basis. They even cross-train to provide a better understanding of each other’s areas of responsibility. This allows for emergency fill-in if a position should become vacant for some reason during an incident.

According to Det. Jan Dubina of the Phoenix Police Department Special Assignment Unit and Section Chair of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) Crisis Negotiation Section, “Regardless if you are a local, dedicated team (full or part time) or a regional team it is important that the team train together and with the tactical team. Training is the key and an essential part of negotiations.”

Recent Developments

Law enforcement continues to meet the challenges of our ever changing society through continuous innovation. Improvements and adjustments are necessary to modernizing the methods used in police work. Crisis negotiation is no different. While contemplating how best to start such a team, it might help to consider incorporating new trends in the field into your agency.

With the advent of post-Columbine concerns for school and workplace violence, many agencies have instituted “mini-teams,” “tac light teams,” or “active combatant” programs.

The purpose is to provide a quick, rapid deployment to an ongoing shooting situation, often from within patrol. While their purpose is forceful control and containment, if possible, the option for negotiation is always left open in the hope of saving innocent lives.

The negotiation concept is being expanded into other areas of law enforcement. The successful introduction of crisis negotiation into a corrections environment was highlighted recently at a facility in Salem, Ore.

A female corporal was taken captive by a knife-wielding male inmate who claimed to have explosives rigged to the corporal’s body.

“Our crisis negotiators talked him into releasing the hostage and giving himself up, without harming her,” says Lt. Brian Stephen, assistant squad leader of the agency’s TERT. “They saved her life, saved his life, and saved the department untold amounts of money, court time, and grief.”

Several proactive Western state legislatures have recognized the value of crisis negotiation teams and the importance of fully staffing them to successfully end conflicts. They have bills pending that will require all negotiation teams to maintain a minimum of four negotiators. If enacted, such bills would compel squads to cover these positions during every incident involving a callout.

Finding Peaceable Solutions

Crisis Negotiation Teams can be important tools in an agency’s arsenal. Lt. Bob Ragsdale of Phoenix PD’s Special Assignment Unit sums up their significance best.

“Law enforcement is empowered to use force to resolve incidents. The use of force is spoken of in terms of response continuums or force options,” Ragsdale says. “While we are empowered to use force, we are also under the constraints to use reasonable force, no more and no less than is necessary. If we can resolve an emotionally charged volatile incident, such as a hostage taking incident or barricaded subject, through the use of negotiations, which falls under communication as a force option, then we have done the job that has been required of us.”

Six Basic Listening Skills
1.     Reflecting or Mirroring
2.     I-Messages
3.     Minimal Encouragers
4.     Open-Ended Questions
5.     Use of Silence or Dramatic Pauses
6.    Emotional Paraphrasing

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