Aug 14 2011

Hostage Situations from a Criminal’s Perspective

1. Taking hostages is so dangerous that it usually isn’t premeditated in the United States.  A criminal’s main means of survival is mobility.  If he’s taken many hostages, he doesn’t have any.  Even if he’s taken only one hostage for ransom money, the police will know where the criminal will be at the designated pick-up time and may even be able to locate the victim with evidence left at the scene of the kidnapping.  There are two main types of hostage-taker (HT) and one type of victim taker.

  • Someone caught in a botched crime.  For example, maybe the criminal is trying to rob a bank, but the police respond unexpectedly quickly.  In the heat of the moment, an utterly trapped criminal might take hostages out of desperation.  In his stress-addled mind, he might think that taking hostages is the only way to somehow effect an escape and avoid a 15+ year sentence.  (He might even have dreams of demanding a helicopter, but that’s a Hollywood fantasy).
  • Someone that cannot outrun the police.  For example, if the police come to serve an arrest warrant, an unwilling suspect might take a hostage (usually a family member) to buy time and space for an escape.  Alternately, rioting prisoners may take guards as hostages to deter police reinforcements from retaking the prison by force.
  • Somebody in an emotional crisis without a clear set of negotiable demands.  For example, a laid-off worker might seize his former boss or a disturbed lover might seize his/her significant other after being rejected.  These criminals are not looking to bargain.  Technically, in police parlance, these criminals are not considered “hostage-takers” because “hostage” implies tangible demands.  People captured without demands are “victims.”  Victims are in much graver danger because the criminal may have murder-suicide in mind.  In contrast, a “hostage-taker” does not have a personal incentive to murder the hostages.  (If you murder a hostage, you lose your bargaining leverage).


2. Hostages are fairly high-maintenance, particularly in long-term standoffs (which are very rare).  In the short-term, the criminals have to worry about food/water, toilets, the potential for medical emergencies and the difficult task of controlling the hostages.  In the long-term, the criminals also have to worry about hygiene, medicine and recreation/hostage morale.  (The HTs probably do not have any humanitarian concern for the hostages, but they have selfish reasons to care.  Happy/healthy hostages are easier to control, less likely to infect criminals and less likely to result in a murder conviction.  Also, killing a hostage that happens to be a prison guard could be very hazardous to an HT’s health when he is returned to police custody).


2.1. Keeping a handful of hostages is much easier than keeping many, especially if the HTs don’t have the manpower to control many hostages.  But the police will still give criminals a lot of latitude even if they have a relatively small number of hostages. The police will offer the criminals incentives to release some hostages and make other seemingly meaningless concessions (like giving up any extra firearms).


3.  Taking and constantly watching over hostages is extremely stressful.  The criminals’ minds will probably start to play tricks on them as the siege wears on.  They can only keep going on pure adrenaline so long.  Also, most hostage-takers aren’t very mentally balanced to begin with.


4.  If there are multiple hostage-takers, there’s some possibility of internal dissension.  If a hostage-taker was having second thoughts about following his leader into death and/or an extremely long prison term, he might surrender himself to the police anticipating that he will be treated much more leniently.  The FBI negotiator that wrote Stalling for Time recounted one incident where a hostage-taker got only four years in prison because he surrendered quickly and never pointed a gun at the hostage, for example.  Alternately, perhaps it’s the leader trying to keep the situation from devolving into violence (which will result in the police kicking down the door).  It might only take one accidental round from a trigger-happy HT to convince the police to burst in to save the hostages from possible execution.  Alternately, a criminal may start to have second thoughts about the sanity of his teammates and/or leader.  In a really complicated situation like a prison riot, there might be different factions vying for different goals.


4.1.  There are many scenarios under U.S. law where a non-violent kidnapper really gets nailed.  If a hostage dies for any reason (criminal gunshot, police gunshot, heart-attack or possibly a miscarriage induced by stress, etc), every kidnapper can be charged with murder–even if they didn’t fire a weapon and/or didn’t intend to kill anybody.  Every criminal then participating in the event (the hostage-taking) is fully responsible for any resulting deaths.  If one of the criminals is waving his gun around like it’s a toy, a more practical HT might wonder about where this is going and whether he can get off this train before it’s too late.


5. Most hostage situations end with a whimper, not with a bang.  95% of hostage standoffs end without any loss of life.  According to Crisis Intervention Strategies by Rick James (not that Rick James, unfortunately), the most common resolution is that the police are able to draw out the situation long enough that the criminals get emotionally overwhelmed, realize that they do not have control of the situation, lose hope and eventually surrender.

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Hostage Situations from a Criminal’s Perspective”

  1. B. Macon 14 Aug 2011 at 1:53 am

    The idea for this post came from the anonymous Google user that searched for how to write a hostage scene. My next two articles will be on hostage situations from the perspective of the police and then the perspective of the hostages.

  2. Mynaon 14 Aug 2011 at 9:21 am

    Whoa, this is a really interesting article! I didn’t think of any of these points, most of my knowledge of hostage situations comes from the media, stuff about Stockholm Syndrome (I’m a psych geek) and etc.

  3. B. Macon 14 Aug 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Yeah, Stockholm Syndrome would be more obvious as a long-term consequence (and almost all hostage standoffs are resolved in less than a day). However, in the short-term, I think someone that was predisposed to be sympathetic to the hostage-taker (like a family member) might convince himself/herself that the problem would go away if the police left.

    (Domestic situations are frequently very complicated).

  4. Grenacon 15 Aug 2011 at 11:09 pm

    I loved learning about Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t even know why, but it’s just so interesting. Why do things like this pull me in? :I

  5. […] Hostage Situations from a Criminal’s Perspective: An amazingly good post for any crime-fiction writer out there. I imagine B. Mac had fun doing the research for this (that or he knows way too much about something he really shouldn’t). […]

  6. […] have a hostage situation in a story I’m revising and B. Mac’s Hostage Situations from a Criminal’s Perspective provided some great tips for upping the authenticity as well as further links for […]

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