Issue #003 — December 2012


What are the basic principles
of hostage negotiation?

Justin Freeman

I am the pastor of a small evangelical church in southern Missouri, and am a former municipal police officer with nearly three years of law enforcement experience.

The foremost principle: Make the hostage taker think.

I'll pause here to provide a disclaimer - I wasn't ever directly involved in hostage negotiation and wasn't trained in it, but I had a training officer, a squad-mate and an officer I used to go to church with who were. If I have an opportunity to pull any of their ears on the subject I'll improve my answer, but at this point I'll give you my observations for now.

To begin, let's deconstruct a hostage situation to its basic elements:

  • The suspect needs/desires something unattainable by legitimate means (money, influence, rhetoric).
  • In order to attain this something, the suspect needs some type of leverage.
  • The suspect may have convinced him/herself that the need/desire is worth risking a lengthy prison sentence or their life in order to attain.
  • He/she may be convinced nobody cares about their best interests.
  • The suspect may have convinced him/herself there are no legitimate options.
  • If so, unlawful options are now up for consideration.
  • The ideal leverage would be easily accessible, manipulable, mobile, and carry a high inherent or ascribed value to someone.
  • The safety of the leverage could be exchanged for the unattainable thing.

When you look at it this way, a human being is the obvious choice in this situation. Now, nobody sits down and works this out on paper - in fact, this whole process may skip steps and happen in the space of two seconds - but these are the underlying dynamics of most any hostage situation.

The problem is that these dynamics aren't rational - they are the products of acute tunnel vision on the part of the suspect(s), who are so focused on what they're trying to attain that they disregard the long view of their own well-being (and obviously that of their hostage). The job of a hostage negotiator is to highlight, engender critical thought about, and disrupt the above bullet points in the mind of the hostage taker.

This can be extremely difficult, though, because there are more often than not exacerbating factors playing into hostage situations. Most of these are not the grand standoffs in front of the bank with marble columns you see in the movies - they most often feature suspects who are drunk, high, or have cognitive deficiencies of some kind (which tend to be a bit more nuanced than the narcissistic psychopathy you see on the big screen).

So what are some tactics used in an effort to address the above bulletpoints?

  • Establishment of Communication. The sophistication here can vary from IRC all the way down to yelling through a wall. Ideally, though, since you're likely in a barricade situation with no eye contact or body language to work with, you'll want to use a phone. That way little is lost in translation, you don't have the ambiguity of text to work with, and you can engage in:
  • Analysis of Auditory Clues. In addition to constructing the message (which I'll get to in a moment), the negotiator needs to be taking notes about what he or she is hearing and making inferences based on those sounds. A faint whimper in the background may mean the hostage is gagged (but that they're alive). A collective outburst from multiple hostages may mean a hostage taker is brandishing a weapon or harming a hostage. A crack in the hostage taker's voice or a muffled sniffle may mean they're cracking under the pressure and looking for a way out.
  • Establishment of Rapport. It's extremely likely that the hostage taker feels that nobody ever listens to them or takes them seriously - it's the negotiator's job to be that person. A negotiator needs to be able to summon seeming empathy for even the most outlandish complaints and lend apparent credence to even the most preposterous manifestos. This may require:
  • Taking the Role of an Arbitrator. The negotiator needs to give the hostage taker the impression that they're just a communication facilitator between them and the police massed outside. This can often be achieved by creative use of the second person: "Listen, I know where you're coming from here - but all they know is that you're holding people against their will. I need to be able to convince them you're not an unreasonable person, so why don't you…" This verbal sidling up to the suspect obscures the fact that the negotiator is not only not on their side, but is actually prepared to talk the suspect into a position to be killed if it becomes necessary.
  • Introducing More Options Into the Situation. Like I discussed above, it's likely that the suspect thinks this is the only option - that they're painted into a corner and have no other recourse. A negotiator must begin to dismantle this idea and remind the hostage taker of the bevy of options available to them, and to explain in turn why they're all better than prolonging the standoff or harming anyone involved. Related to this is:
  • Downplaying the Consequences of this Event. The negotiator needs to begin laying the foundation for the argument that the situation can only truly be resolved if the hostages are freed and discussions can resume in a situation with lower stakes. The negotiator may wax optimistic about legal options, circumstances being taken into consideration, preference being shown for not harming hostages, and so on. These are likely misdirections at best, if not outright lies - the negotiator doesn't actually care about the suspect's motives and wouldn't use pull with the prosecutor even if he had it; the prosecutor doesn't soften charges for relative good behavior during a felony - there just aren't any additional charges added. And the suspect is very likely going to prison for quite some time - no using the Shaggy Defense here. The negotiator must obscure all of this, though, by suggesting an outcome of everybody amicably sitting around a table and coming to a grand meeting of the minds where the suspect is finally understood and allowed to go his or her merry way.
  • Managing Quid Pro Quo Effectively. Throughout the incident, the hostage taker will be looking to exert his or her leverage most effectively. A negotiator needs to devise ways of getting the hostage takers to spend this currency in ways that seemingly benefit them but are actually of little consequence. For instance, a hostage taker may demand that "the police back off." A negotiator will likely remind the hostage taker that they can't just leave with innocent people inside, but that if he or she will release a hostage they will do something; that something will be unique to the situation, but it won't be anything that diminishes response readiness - it will be inconsequential window dressing that is painted by the negotiator as an advantage to the hostage taker.
  • Patiently Keeping Emotional Equilibrium. Hostage situations can end peacefully or violently; if a suspect's emotions get out of control, they can get very violent very quickly, sometimes just in an effort to be taken seriously. The longer a negotiator can keep a suspect relatively calm, the more likely a suspect's needs (food, bathroom, sleep) are to hasten an end to the standoff. Multiple suspects obviously complicate this equation, but in my experience these are crimes of opportunity and emotional passion, not coordinated events between multiple people.
  • Maintaining Emotional Distance. In the act of (seemingly) empathizing, a negotiator needs to keep the mission front and center - as I alluded to earlier, if the situation is beginning to go sour and a sniper is in place, it may be a negotiator's job to talk a hostage taker into a position (window, doorway, etc.) where they will be shot and killed. This is a known dynamic going in - in fact, one of the interview questions for the negotiator position in my department dealt with whether the candidate had a moral objection to basically coercing someone into being killed - but it takes a degree of detachment that is very uncommon.

Again, these are my thoughts on the matter viewing it from the second degree, mainly from the standpoint of the actual negotiator; there are obviously other considerations that the SWAT team and perimeter officers have to make, which I won't delve into for reasons of maintaining tactical superiority.

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