by Bruce A. Wind 10/95
[Officer Wind is a member of the Seattle, WA, Police Dept. Hostage
Incidents involving barricaded subjects, hostage takers, or persons
threatening suicide represent especially trying and stressful moments
for law enforcement personnel who respond to them. Officers first
responding to the scene must quickly assess the totality of the
situation, secure the area, gauge the threat to hostages or bystanders,
and request additional units as appropriate. Crisis negotiators must
establish contact with subjects, identify their demands, and work to
resolve tense and often volatile standoffs without loss of life.
Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams must prepare to neutralize
subjects through swift tactical means. Field commanders assume ultimate
responsibility for every aspect of the police response.
For such a coordinated response to be successful, each component needs
to understand clearly the functions of the others. This article
clarifies the role of crisis negotiators for field commanders, of
whatever rank, who find themselves in command of hostage or other
Supervisors who understand the purpose behind the actions taken by
negotiators will avoid delays at the scene that occur when negotiators
must stop and explain or justify their intended courses of action.
Such understanding has taken on particular importance in recent years.
Negotiators have become very active, due in part to the reputations they
have established for the successful, peaceful resolution of various
types of critical incidents. For example, in 1993, the Hostage
Negotiations Team of the Seattle, Washington, Police Department resolved
21 incidents, expending a total of 263 negotiator hours. In 1994,
negotiators resolved 32 incidents, spending 407 hours in negotiations.
Although it might appear that negotiators and tactical teams work at
cross-purposes during a crisis, nothing could be further from the truth.
Society requires that law enforcement exhausts all means available prior
to launching a tactical resolution to an incident. If these means prove
unsuccessful, then the transition from negotiation to tactical assault
must be a smooth one.
To enhance cooperation, negotiators and personnel from tactical teams
should train together on a regular basis. In Seattle, the Hostage
Negotiations Team and the Emergency Response Team conduct joint training
exercises four to six times a year. These training sessions include four
fully enacted crisis scenarios. Members of the department's command
staff are encouraged to participate, and through this training, have
learned how the two teams work together.
Law enforcement agencies generally place a premium on the training
provided to tactical teams. Administrators should place no less emphasis
on the training provided to their negotiations teams. At a very minimum,
negotiators should complete the FBI's Basic Hostage/Crisis Negotiations
Because the department's training qualifications may become subject to
critical review in the courts should negotiations fail, negotiators
should further their training through advanced courses, seminars, basic
psychology classes, and detailed critical analysis of past incidents.
TYPES OF INCIDENTS
Most negotiations teams group incidents into three main categories --
hostage takings, barricade situations, and suicide attempts.
Traditionally, hostage takings assume the highest profile. However, in
recent years, the Seattle Police Department's Hostage Negotiations Team
has responded to an increasing number of high-profile barricade
situations. Field commanders should remember that the peaceful
resolution of a barricade situation is as important to negotiators as
the resolution of an incident involving a person threatening to jump
from a bridge or a hostage taking with extensive media coverage.
THE NEGOTIATIONS PROCESS
In negotiations, as in most endeavors, no absolutes exist. Each incident
takes on a personality of its own. Field commanders can be sure of only
one thing: Their decisions will be scrutinized by every "Monday morning
quarterback" from city hall to the city desk. Therefore, they should
base their decisions on an understanding of the negotiations process and
the many factors that affect it.
A successful negotiations process requires a good foundation. Often,
circumstances force the first responding officers to initiate some type
of negotiation with the subject(s).
However, once line officers or first-line supervisors realize that an
incident appears to be heading for something other than a prompt
resolution, they should immediately terminate negotiations and call in
Too many tragedies in communities across America demonstrate how
negotiations should not be initiated. A bad start by well-intentioned,
but untrained, personnel can have negative effects throughout the
process. Simply put, personnel who are not trained negotiators should
A negotiator's most important ally in all situations is time. Field
commanders should not rush anything unless the loss of life appears
imminent. Although it may seem as if nothing is happening because a
suspect is not negotiating, this is not so. During these quiet times,
many things occur that will eventually lead to a peaceful resolution.
Negotiators refer to these quiet intervals as "dynamic inactivity." As
long as time passes without any harm to persons involved, then
negotiators are making progress. The passing of time works for the
police in many ways and only means that a resolution is closer at hand.
Field commanders should keep in mind that patience is a virtue.
The Negotiations Team
Generally, the negotiations team consists of at least three main
negotiators. Each team member plays a vital role in the successful
resolution of critical incidents.
The primary negotiator actually communicates with the subject. The
secondary (or backup) negotiator assists the primary negotiator by
offering advice, monitoring the negotiations, keeping notes, and
ensuring that the primary negotiator sees and hears everything in the
proper perspective. The intelligence negotiator interviews persons
associated with the suspect to compile a criminal history and a history
of mental illness, as well as to gather other relevant information.
Often, an additional negotiator will act as the chief negotiator, whose
primary responsibility is to act as a buffer between command personnel
and the negotiations team.
Invariably, and understandably, field commanders want to offer their
advice to the negotiations team. Whenever possible, suggestions should
be routed to the negotiations team via the chief negotiator.
The Negotiations Area
Typically, the negotiations team sets up away from the rest of the
activity and maintains communications with the command post via a
liaison. In Seattle, a member of the Emergency Response Team generally
monitors the negotiations and provides tactical intelligence to the
arrest, entry, and perimeter teams.
Only the Police Should Negotiate
Often, well-meaning civilians offer to negotiate with subjects.
Sometimes, these civilians insist that they be allowed to negotiate. A
wide range of individuals - from parents, spouses, and lovers to
friends, members of the clergy, attorneys, counselors, and mental health
professionals - might offer to do the talking. As a general rule, direct
civilian participation in negotiations is entirely unacceptable. The
tactical negotiations process is a police operation.
When faced with these offers, field commanders should keep in mind that
the individual now so willing to help might have played a large part in
driving the subject over the edge. While these individuals might be a
useful source of information, only in very rare circumstances should
they be allowed to speak directly with subjects. Instead, they should be
escorted to the intelligence negotiator and kept well clear of the
actual negotiations process.
Containment and Control
Basic police procedure dictates that any crisis incident be contained
using both inner and outer perimeters established and maintained by the
police. Critical incidents such as hostage takings, barricade
situations, or suicide attempts must be contained prior to the start of
negotiations. Mobile negotiations should not be attempted.
While the need for a secure inner perimeter is obvious, crisis incidents
also require an emphasis on a well-controlled outer perimeter. When
arriving at the scene of a hostage taking, barricade situation, or
suicide intervention, negotiators often encounter a large crowd made up
of bystanders, the press, and the subject's family members. It is
important that the subject not be given an audience to "play to."
Negotiation cannot succeed if negotiators must compete with outside
influences for the subject's attention.
Individuals with potentially helpful information about a subject should
be secured in an area where they can provide details to the intelligence
negotiator. Likewise, the press should be provided a designated
gathering area away from the perimeter and be briefed regularly
regarding the status of the negotiations process.
Field commanders should remember that reporters have a job to do. They
will do that job, with or without the help of the police. It is far more
preferable to provide them with the accurate information they need than
to force them to gather it for themselves. The relationship need not be
confrontational. In Seattle, the police generally enjoy good relations
with the on-scene press. During protracted incidents, supervisors should
request the assistance of the department's media relations personnel to
help deal with the press.
The highly unstable nature of these incidents also makes it imperative
that an arrest team be prepared to take the subject(s) into custody at a
moment's notice. In fact, the surrender phase represents the most
critical stage in any negotiated incident. In some cases, surrender can
occur very rapidly. Depending on the severity of the incident, the
arrest team can be made up of patrol officers or members of specialized
teams. Once the SWAT team sets up at a scene, it should assume this
Control of Phone Lines
During a protracted crisis, it is essential that the police control the
phone lines. Generally, one of the first actions negotiators take when
arriving at an incident is to arrange with the telephone company to deny
origination to telephones at the subject's disposal. Once origination
is denied, the subject's telephones will no longer get a dial tone. At
the negotiators' request, the telephone company then establishes a new
number that serves as a direct line between negotiators and the subject.
Restricting telephone access in this way prohibits the subject from
talking to family, friends, attorneys, and most important, the press. It
also prevents the suspect from gathering intelligence about police
maneuvers from associates.
The Throw Phone
When there is no telephone accessible to the subject, or the telephone
has been disabled as a tactical move by SWAT, the police must
reestablish a means of communication. Because of the potential danger
posed to negotiators, face-to-face negotiations do not represent an
In these situations, the SWAT team often tactically delivers a "throw
phone"--a standard telephone linked to a hardline system connected to
the hostage phone system. Because telephone delivery places members of
the SWAT team in dangerous situations, it should be practiced regularly
during joint negotiator-SWAT training exercises.
In Seattle, control of the phone lines generally can be secured without
supervisory approval. However, in many instances, the negotiations team
might determine a need to control the electricity and water, as well.
Only the on-scene commander can make the final decision to interrupt
Negotiators will bring the specific reasons for disconnecting utilities
to the attention of the on-scene commander. Some of the most common
reasons include taking away a subject's ability to monitor the incident
on television; darkening the environment to provide a tactical advantage
for SWAT; and eliminating comforts, such as toilet facilities.
Tactical teams also might call for disconnection of plumbing services to
deny subjects the ability to neutralize chemical agents, as has occurred
in several recent incidents in Seattle. For whatever reason, the denial
(or resumption) of utilities provides negotiators with an effective
Different perspectives exist concerning the appropriate time to deny
subjects utility services. Some experts believe that utilities should be
disconnected before negotiations begin. Others believe negotiators
should save such steps for use as bargaining tools later. While this is
a matter of individual agency policy, administrators should ensure that
the department adopts well-established policy guidelines in this pivotal
Demands and Deadlines
It is preferable for field commanders to resist the tendency to monitor
the negotiations process personally. Supervisors who monitor
negotiations or hear demands, deadlines, and death threats related
during briefings should not become overly concerned. They should
remember that the negotiating team is trained to deal with such
scenarios. When a subject demands "$1 million," the negotiators actually
hear "a 6-pack of soda."
Likewise, if the on-scene commander hears a subject say, "If I don't get
the car by 2:00, I'll kill a hostage," negotiators actually hear, "Good,
now we are really negotiating." 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
During an incident, a member of the negotiations team keeps the field
commander informed of the negotiations. Commanders who find it
absolutely necessary to monitor the negotiations need to inform the
negotiations team, which should have the capability to wire a speaker to
the command post to enable supervisors to listen to exchanges with the
However, field commanders' decisions should be based on the law,
departmental policy, and the need for preservation of life and property.
They should not make decisions based on exchanges they overhear between
subjects and negotiators. The decisionmaking ability of commanders who
personally monitor the negotiations process may be affected by any
number of factors that have little actual bearing on the situation.
Much of the insight into the minds of troubled subjects comes from the
specialized psychological training that crisis negotiators receive. As
part of their training, negotiators learn a great deal about personality
types, personality disorders, and the psychological motivations of
hostage takers, suicidal persons, and subjects who barricade themselves.
This training enables negotiators to manipulate a subject through their
understanding of that person's state of mind. Accordingly, negotiators
rely primarily on mental rather than physical tactics to resolve
Each field commander with the Seattle Police Department carries a
pocket-sized checklist of actions that must be performed during a
negotiated crisis. The checklist assists on-scene commanders to
accomplish in an orderly fashion the various tasks required during a
crisis. Other agencies might benefit from a similar checklist.1
During times of extreme pressure, even the most prepared and composed
professionals might not always remember to do everything at the right
time. A checklist can prove invaluable in assisting supervisors to keep
tense situations under control.
Agencies should conduct debriefings after the resolution of any crisis
incident. Whenever possible, these debriefings should take place
immediately following an incident, when details are still fresh in the
The debriefing should focus on how the various units handled their roles
during the incident. Each component must be represented, and officers
should feel free to offer criticism--both positive and negative.
However, debriefings of this type should not be confused with or
conducted in place of critical incident stress debriefings. Both serve
valuable but distinct purposes.
Despite moves toward proactive policing methodologies, law enforcement
remains an inherently reactive profession. When violent or troubled
subjects create a crisis, they force the police to react to a situation
in which the offenders already hold many of the cards. The press and the
public judge the police by how well they respond to such situations.
Generally, concerns for hostage and officer safety, in addition to the
well-being of often mentally disturbed subjects, dictate that the police
respond at the lowest force level possible.
Therefore, on-scene commanders should be prepared to supervise a
negotiated settlement. The negotiations process can be tedious, complex,
and at times, confusing. The better field commanders understand the many
factors that affect it, the more likely that negotiators will get the
support necessary to resolve critical incidents peacefully.
Agencies interested in receiving a copy of the checklist developed by
the Seattle Police Department should send a request on agency letterhead
to the author in care of the Seattle Police Department, 610 Third
Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98104-1886.
from the FBI's monthly magazine
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