Aug 20 2011

Hostage Situations from the Police Negotiator’s Perspective

1. The first police officers on the scene will not be specialists.  These police officers still play an important role (containing the situation, maintaining a perimeter, clearing out civilians, etc).  Circumstances may force them to initiate some sort of negotiation, but as soon as it looks like the situation will not be promptly resolved, the line officers should immediately terminate negotiations and call in specialists.  (Metropolitan police departments, some state police departments and the FBI have officers who have been carefully selected and trained to deal with these critical incidents).  The specialists’ job will be harder if a line officer antagonized the subject.

1.1. Across the board, negotiators tend to have excellent self-control, calm under stress, communication skills, a calm and confident demeanor, strong listening and interviewing skills and the ability to work effectively on a team.  They’ll have at least 40 hours of training on techniques, abnormal psychology, active listening skills, case studies and drills.


2. The main goal of negotiation is to convince the subject(s) to surrender.  If that is not possible, the secondary goal is to give the SWAT team the best opportunity to rescue the captives with a minimal loss of life.  To accomplish these goals, the negotiators want to:

  • Stall for time.  First, time allows emotions to cool down, which reduces the likelihood of hostages getting killed.  Second, it may take hours (rarely, even days) for the subjects to realize how hopeless their situation is.  Lastly, if it does come down to a shootout, the operation will be more successful and less dangerous if the SWAT team has had time to prepare.
  • Establish communication and develop rapport.  For example, the subject might be thinking about giving himself up, but he isn’t sure whether the 20+ armed cops outside will shoot him if he comes out.  A negotiator could work something out fairly easily.  For example, “if you’re ready to come out, the police will lower their weapons.”  (By the way, if the police are willing to lower their weapons, they probably have sharpshooters ready to fire if the subject reaches for his gun).
  • Gather intelligence.  A secondary negotiator should check the subjects’ criminal, civil, medical and psychological records and conduct interviews with friends/family/coworkers.  Is the criminal actually likely to kill his captives?  What might cause an escalation? What actions could the police take now and after the crisis to make sure that there’s a long-term solution here?


3. The negotiator’s tactics will be shaped by whether the subject has substantive demands. If the subject has a tangible goal in mind, he’s usually more rational and less dangerous.  For example, a subject that kidnaps someone in the hopes of ransoming him back to the family and prison rioters that grab prison guards to keep the police at bay would be “hostage-takers” because they want some sort of negotiated settlement.  In contrast, somebody that has taken a “victim” by force has no clear, negotiable goals.  For example, a spouse might fly into a rage over divorce and/or infidelity or a laid-off worker might capture his ex-boss.   Victims are in much more danger than hostages because a hostage-taker has no personal incentive to kill his hostages.  Killing his hostages destroys his bargaining leverage.  In contrast, a victim-taker might want to commit murder-suicide.


Negotiating with hostage-takers: 

  • The negotiator will try to lower the HT’s expectations.  The negotiator will probably stall him at every turn (frequently by claiming that he has to consult with his commander before any decision can be made).  The negotiator will rarely offer a HT anything for free because that would empower him to demand other things for free and help convince him to keep going.  For example, “My commander would be willing to pull back the police barricades a little, but only if you [fulfill some police desire, like releasing a hostage or tossing an extra gun out the window].”   By the way, if the subjects have extra guns, it’s helpful to try to convince the subjects to give them up.  Removing excess firearms reduces the amount of people they could kill without reloading.  (In a shooting situation, the subjects will probably not have time to reload).
  • Hostage situations are much safer.  95% of hostage situations are resolved without any loss of life (hostages or hostage-takers). Even missing deadlines might not convince a HT to start killing hostages.  “Remarkably few hostages have ever been harmed as a result of missed deadlines. Of course, negotiators take deadlines and demands very seriously; however, skilled negotiators generally can work around them and even make them work to law enforcement’s advantage.”
  • Negotiators can reason with the subjects and discuss the benefits for coming out quickly.
  • Police will usually be deployed more boldly in a hostage situation (to encourage the HTs to think about the potential cost of not negotiating), but police should not be deployed in an overtly threatening fashion.  The goal is “to bring the subject to the table, not to his knees.”


Negotiating with people that seize victims: 

  • In victim situations, the subjects tend to be more suicidal, more paranoid and frequently have a personal grievance against the victim(s).  For these reasons, victim situations are much more dangerous and police will be deployed in lower-profile containment schemes.
  • In victim situations, negotiators will be more willing to give the subject something for nothing.
  • In victim situations, negotiators will try to use active listening skills to defuse anger, lower emotions, build rapport and eventually offer nonviolent resolution options.   These include mirroring/repeating what the subject said (to demonstrate that the negotiator is listening), paraphrasing, emotional labeling and open-ended questions to encourage more conversation than yes/no answers.


4. Negotiators should make it as easy as possible for the subject to surrender.  First, negotiators don’t call it “surrender.”  Euphemisms like “come outside” make it sound less cowardly.  Second, negotiators should carefully consider how they can conduct the “surrender ritual” (surrender and arrest).  According to one FBI negotiator, “Some subjects want to shave and put on a clean shirt because they want to look good on the news.  Other subjects want to look like ‘bad guys.’ A British colleague reported that he told a subject that a sweater could be put over his hands so friends, neighbors and relatives outside the house would not see him in handcuffs.”  The most awesome surrender ritual I have heard of is when one subject asked to be tackled by the SWAT team so that he could brag in prison about how it took 10 or 20 cops to take him down.  And even then he got some good punches in, or so he claims.  😉


5. Other miscellaneous negotiation tips:

  • Negotiators are loathe to lie.  There are long-term costs to dishonesty.  First, it will be difficult (if not impossible) for this particular criminal to trust the police ever again, which could be a huge problem if/when the criminal gets of prison and tries this again.  Also, the criminal might tell everybody in prison that the police lied to him, which will make it harder to manage them in prison (and afterwards, if they continue to commit crimes).
  • Negotiators shouldn’t be judgmental.  The subjects are going through extreme emotional duress and they will have an easier time controlling their emotions if they believe that there is someone at least trying to understand them.  So negotiators should not call them criminals or hostage-takers, but rather address them in a way that the criminals would like. (Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to call the HT whatever you want at the trial, but don’t let your ego get people killed now).  Also, negotiators should probably avoid words “hostages,” “victims” or “captives.”  Use more humanizing terms.
  • Since Ruby Ridge, psychological warfare tactics (like breaking windows, tossing rocks and playing loud rock music) have been phased out in hostage and victim situations.
  • Between radios, TVs, computers and smart-phones, assume that the subjects have full access to what the media is reporting.
  • If and when the SWAT team is ready to kick in the door, the negotiator will probably get on the phone with the lead subject to distract him.  This helps give the police an idea of where the lead subject is and gives the police a chance to explain anything that the subject might see or hear.  Finally, if the subject has a hand on a phone and is distracted by conversation, he’s probably NOT pointing a gun at a hostage.  When the police kick down the door, that’s ideal.
  • Hollywood loves the idea of negotiators talking face-to-face with subjects, but it doesn’t happen much in real life and doesn’t make much sense.  Nobody’s ever been killed over the telephone. If you really want the drama of having somebody go inside, sending in a doctor/medic is somewhat more believable.  At least the police have some reason to send in a doctor–a doctor can’t tend to a wound or a medical complication over the phone.
  • Killing the subject is not an ideal outcome.  Most hostages and victims die in tactical operations.  If a hostage/victim gets killed in a tactical operation, the police department could get hammered by a lawsuit unless the police can show that they exhausted every other option and that a tactical operation was absolutely necessary.   Expect a lot of second-guessing from politicians, media and the public if anything goes wrong.  Also, depending on the race/ethnicity and/or political goals and/or anything remotely likable about the criminal(s), the police could get political heat for killing the criminal even if no innocents are harmed.

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Hostage Situations from the Police Negotiator’s Perspective”

  1. SilverWolfon 31 Jan 2012 at 7:24 pm

    Thanks, this article helped a lot.

  2. JoeMerlon 26 Aug 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Interesting points to keep in mind, thanks! 🙂

  3. Frankyon 15 Jan 2013 at 9:35 am

    I was a negotiator for many years in the UK. Your article is pretty good but in many respects does not understand the ethos and motivation of negotiators. Other than myself, they are special people, with a knack (reinforced with months of intensive training) of being able to communicate with people under very difficult circumstances in crisis situations. They use these skills to resolve the crisis so that nobody gets hurt. They work in deliberately engineered isolation from SWAT teams and Commanders so that pressure cannot be applied to them by senior officers anxious to resolve the situation quickly. Negotiators are usually unpopular with senior officers and rarely get promoted, (as if they give a damn! lol)

  4. B. McKenzieon 16 Jan 2013 at 5:02 am

    “Negotiators are usually unpopular with senior officers and rarely get promoted.” Ah, that’s an interesting note. I’ve heard other officers criticizing them for their propensity to throw everybody else under the bus whenever anything goes wrong. E.g. the author of Stalling for Time repeatedly criticizes others for things that went wrong but does not (as far as I remember) bring up a single situation over the course of his career where he should have done something more effectively. He was a major player in Ruby Ridge (i.e. a national debacle), so that’s probably a missed opportunity.

  5. niotpodaon 07 Mar 2014 at 8:16 am

    This is so awesome! My MC is a superhero who, before she developed her powers was a hostage negotiator for her local police department. She develops speech powers (people find it hard to ignore/disbelieve/interrupt her, and her voice has a calming influence, unless she wants to rile people up). She goes on to do hostage negotiations/PR for the U.S chapter of an international superhero league.

  6. Alexon 23 Mar 2016 at 3:17 pm

    This is so absolutely useful and wonderful, like 10/10 so clear, perfection.

  7. B. McKenzieon 23 Mar 2016 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Alex, but while this article might be useful in some contexts (e.g. you’re gunning really hard for realism), the problem I had there is that realistic hostage situations are not as entertaining/dramatic as traditionally Hollywood hostage situations (i.e. criminals likely to kill hostages at the slightest provocation, fatal deadlines, almost always resolved with a shootout, etc). In contrast, I think a more realistic take is much slower-paced and usually ends with a whimper (the hostage-takers become emotionally overwhelmed and give themselves up) rather than a climactic shootout or ruse. For a look at how that would play out relatively realistically, I’d recommend checking out the TV show Flashpoint, but be warned that these are some of the least interesting police/criminal interactions you’ll ever see. And that’s WITHOUT using dynamic waiting and other very slow-paced tactics.

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