Hostage Negotiations for the First Responder

By: Jonathan D. Greenstein

The majority of hostage and barricade calls are first answered by uniformed officers. How the first few minutes are handled following the initial response is critical to a successful outcome. This article will address how the first responder can leverage those first few minutes to gain the advantage and discuss some of the facts and myths surrounding barricade situations. Because hostage and barricade situations are very dynamic and the particulars quite diverse, this article will address the initial response without delving into motives beyond the generalities. A review of hostage and barricade situations has shown that there are generally three types of hostage situations. They cover criminal, domestic and terrorism. Criminal situations can include robberies gone wrong, fleeing criminals who take hostages for cover and hostage taking for profit. Domestic barricade situations have the potential to escalate and spiral out of control due to the potential for previous interpersonal violence issues and mental health concerns. Terrorist incidents while less frequent have the potential to show resurgence domestically and may provide for the most difficult of negotiations as the terrorist may engage in disingenuous dialogue in order to draw in the police or ensure media coverage. Hostage takers participate in either well planned or spontaneous reactions to a situation. A professional criminal may end up take a hostage accidentally or as a consequence of fight. The hostages are then used as barter for escape because they criminal finds themselves trapped. Domestic situations can deevolve from a dispute into a hostage/barricade situation with little or no warning. Terrorism cases may be may be carefully planned with specific targets selected. The operation will likely be well thought out and likely rehearsed. Upon arrival, the first responder should utilize the ICER protocol: Isolate, Contain, Evaluate and Report. Isolate the scene and keep non-essential personnel and onlookers outside of the immediate area. Contain the hostage taker to the immediate area. Evaluate the situation and incident specifics from an on-scene perspective. Report the number of hostage takers and hostages. Immediately following the ICER, the next priority will be to maintain isolation and containment of the situation. Lacking sufficient resources to immediately establish a secure perimeter, the lead officer may find that by engaging the subject in dialogue will help to stabilize the situation, even if only temporarily. By opening a line of communication the subject is provided an opportunity to focus on the police and not any hostages that may be present. Statistics show that on average, better than 90% of all hostage and barricade situations are successfully resolved through communications. This is a critical figure to take note of. While it is unlikely that the first responder will continue the communication from initial contact to the surrender, it is important for every officer to appreciate the importance of establishing and maintaining a dialogue.

I have always expressed my feeling that all cops, regardless of tenure, experience or rank are inherently good negotiators. While it does take a special person to become a dedicated hostage negotiator that can leverage their training and experience to defuse some of the more complex situations, I can show you that even the greenest rookie is a successful negotiator. Be it the issuance of a traffic ticket, getting a person to relent and submit to arrest or simply asking someone to move along; all these acts are negotiations, albeit less complex than one involving an armed hostage taker holding a busload of frightened passengers, they are all negotiations. While the latter is a dynamic event that could result in the loss of life, as experience shows, so can a simple field contact. Outside the context of police work, we negotiate. Be it for a better deal on the price of a car, with our significant others or children; we negotiate. Remember that the first step to a successful negotiation is communication. Communication as we know is a two part process, talking and listening. When I say listening I mean actively listening. Pay attention to not just what is being said but how. As sensitive subjects or event triggers are discussed, it is probable that there will be physical cues; take note of these. Pay attention to indicators of openness and resistance. Even if this initial communication ends upon the arrival of the designated negotiator who takes the lead, the information you garner in these first few minutes can provide invaluable over the course of the crisis negotiation. Building on the skills we learned in the academy we must remember that the whole picture is just as important as the small details. It is these small details that make up the big picture after all. While you may not have the time or capability to delve into the depths of the hostage takers life and the trigger event, you may have the opportunity to garner small bits about them that help develop a general profile and picture of who that are and what is going on in their life that led us to where we are. When initiating contact as a first responder; keep the dialogue simple and direct. I would suggest something along the lines of identifying who you are and what your goal is. Perhaps “This is Sergeant Greenstein and I am here to help”. I would advise against following up the introduction with a solicitation of demands. In most cases the subject wants one thing; immediate freedom and will likely make that demand. If the subject issues a demand that simply cannot be fulfilled such as a vehicle, a firearm, drugs or alcohol; make that clear. In cases of terrorist hostage situations I stress that officers avoid discussion of ideology in any form, but focus on identifying the status of any hostages and the immediate intent of the hostage taker. In most cases, the hostage taker will set the tempo of communications. They may refuse to acknowledge your presence or could quickly latch onto you as a venue through which they can voice their grievances. Should they fail to respond, I suggest a steady and persistent approach at establishing a line of dialogue and communication. Depending on the dynamics of the scene, a repeat announcement every five to ten minutes should be adequate. Should the first responder find that the subject is ready to surrender, it is critical that the surrender ritual be established. Simply put, the surrender ritual is an agreed upon plan in which the hostage takers lay down their weapons, present themselves and are taken into custody. As you reach the state where the surrender ritual is being finalized, the current thinking is that you avoid terms such as “surrender” or

“give up” as they can be taken as signs of weakness on the part of the hostage takers. The recommended language would include terms such as “come out”, as it signifies movement from their current place of confinement as opposed to a complete capitulation on their part. Mind you that these themes are aimed at the mitigation of criminal and domestic situations. Terrorist incidents will have a completely different dynamic and require separate discussion that is beyond the scope of this article. In criminal and domestic events, there is the potential for the event to spiral out of control and end in the death of hostages and the hostage taker; this is a reality. In terrorist cases, we must acknowledge that in most cases, the intent of the hostage taker is to gain an audience before which they can then execute their fatal plot. Provided you are able to establish a rapport with the hostage taker, your next step will be to assess their intent. As noted previously, they will likely want immediate freedom or in the case of a domestic situation; a remedy to their perceived wrong. Your job is to neither convey their freedom nor fix their failed relationship, it is to mitigate the situation and secure the safe release of hostages. In following this plan, you must recognize that you should: avoid accepting deadlines, keep the hostage taker talking, to listen with purpose, to take your time and make calculated moves towards a successful resolution. You must establish clear steps for them to come out alone (or in cases of multiple subjects; one at a time) in order to be taken into custody. You must also ensure that hostages understand that they are to remain until called out individually. These tactics are of critical importance to avoid a rush to the door by hostages and the potential for friendly fire. As your dialogue develops, ensure the hostage taker recognizes you and that while you are in-charge on the outside; they understand that you are not able to make final and absolute decisions. When working through hostage incidents involving emotionally disturbed persons (EDPs), recognize that one of the most important things is to encourage the hostage taker verbally vent. Understand that as the hostage taker vents, they will go through various stages; from rage to sorrow. Your job is to move them to the next stage and ultimately towards surrender. As you communicate, make use of reflective techniques. Remember to never argue or debate the logic of their position; it will not help move them to the next stage. You must be prepared to give the hostage taker plenty of time. The move from one stage of emotion to the next is purely individual and may require gentle coaxing. When dealing with criminal incidents that inadvertently morphed into hostage situations, it is important to recognize that they may not have had any intent to take hostages as they planned their crime; but the incident became one through unforeseen circumstances. As you talk the hostage taker through to surrender, it may be helpful to make clear that you are not focused on the initial crime but the peaceful resolution of the current situation. I would advise a professional and businesslike context in your communications. Keep it simple and direct; you are there to resolve the hostage situation. When it comes to negotiation and concessions, you must appreciate what is an acceptable concession, and what is absolutely not an acceptable concession. The ideal situation would provide for a concession by each party; the hostage taker gets something in return for something, but this is not always the best or even a possibly route to take. In general, the following are deemed acceptable concessions: provision

of food, water and basic amenities. It would likely be an unacceptable concession to provide: weapons, ammunition, drugs, alcohol, additional hostages or the exchange of one hostage for another. Practice and common procedures reflect that the general approach of the negotiator is establish a dialogue, which will lead the hostage taker into make concessions; be it surrender or the release of hostages. The establishment of this dialogue and the passage of time can reduce anxiety and increase the chance for a successful resolution on the part of the hostage taker. Understand that while most situations are resolved in short order, other cases can become a protracted event lasting days. This is where patience and persistence is key. While you may feel pressured to resort to a tactical intervention, the totality of the circumstances must be weighed against the decision to either continue the dialogue or move towards an entry. In closing, I reiterate the need for officers to appreciate their inherent negotiating skills and the need to quickly contain a hostage/barricade situation on arrival to a scene. While it is likely that designated negotiators and tactical operators will assume the lead role in a protracted situation, it is important for first responders to attempt to initiate at least a basic dialogue with hostage takers. If nothing else, they will gain the advantage of assessing the possible motives and intent of the subjects. As training opportunities become available, I would stress the importance to officers that they expand their knowledge, skills and abilities in the arena of hostage negotiations. While the cadre of designated negotiators is a somewhat small community, having first responders with the base knowledge will provide significant benefit during the initial response period. One source of training and professional development is through the International Association of Hostage Negotiators: ____________

About the author: Mr. Jonathan Greenstein is a veteran law enforcement officer and criminal investigator of over fifteen years. He has lectured on a wide range of topics ranging from crime prevention to threat mitigation. He is the author of numerous articles and monographs covering police tactics, crisis mitigation, specialized investigative techniques and domestic terrorism. His most recent accomplishments include the development of a personality typing model for the identification of self initiated violent actors (SIVAs) and a new approach to risk assessment modeling used in strategic planning for antiterrorism. He is a member of the International Association of Hostage Negotiators and has served as the representative to the District of Columbia since 2009. He may be contacted via e-mail:

Disclaimer: This article has been written as part of a professional development exercise. Inferences, conclusions and observations are the authors own and are not indicative of official policy or procedures.

The reader is urged to review their respective agencies policies before implementing any changes based upon the contents hereon.

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