Since the 1970s, some clinical psychologists (often referred to as operational psychologists) have become more actively involved in the resolution of critical incident situations, which are classified as either hostage situations or crisis intervention situations. Police psychologists are valuable contributors to the training of tactical and crisis and hostage negotiators. On-scene responsibilities for operational psychologists include providing professional consultation on the potential behavioral effects of psychopathology and psychopharmacology, selection of primary and backup negotiators, suggestions and input regarding the actual negotiation process, and operational consultation to the tactical commander. Research shows that police departments that employ psychologists during special operation responses have significantly fewer casualties of both hostages and hostage takers and more incidents that are peacefully resolved via a negotiated surrender than by a tactical entry or violent confrontation. Police psychologists, in providing cogent consultation and robust training dynamics to specialized police crisis response teams, have made a dramatic contribution to reducing the risk of injury and death for all participants in these critical events.
Crisis and Hostage Negotiation
Within both federal and local law enforcement environments, a hostage situation has become defined as any situation in which individuals are being held via active coercion by another person or people and demands are being made by the hostage taker(s). These demands are by design established by the hostage taker(s) to gain compliance as well as establish an inherent power by the hostage taker(s) over the responding law enforcement agency. Typically, a hostage situation results from the interruption of a criminal act in which the perpetrators take hostages with an ultimate goal of forcing law enforcement to comply with their demands for escape. At the other end of the continuum are hostage situations initiated by a terrorist group whose goal is to communicate their political agenda via media exposure. The terrorists attempt to actualize this confrontation by using the hostages as political pawns, as the terrorists have the option of choosing martyrdom for themselves and/or death to the hostages if their demands are not met.
As hostage negotiation developed over the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, it was observed that the majority of negotiator incidents were either initiated by an individual or within some family dyad. As such, the typical negotiator intervention entailed interaction with a barricaded subject, a suicidal individual, or a couple who were engaged in a violent domestic confrontation. These incidents required the application of crisis-intervention techniques and active listening skills. The overall principle in crisis negotiation is that time is on the side of the negotiator in that the passage of time will provide a “cooling off” period for the individual who is seen as a victim rather than as a perpetrator. Over time, the emotional lability of the individual will dissipate, which allows for the introduction of active listening techniques by the negotiator. This system of communication provides a spectrum of responses that facilitate viable, objective problem-solving options to the individual in crisis.
Team Composition and Tactics
A hostage/crisis negotiation event is a complicated and potentially dangerous undertaking for any law enforcement agency. Almost all these situations demand the response of a two-pronged team, the special weapons and tactics team (SWAT). The SWAT team consists of a heavily armed and specially trained group of police officers, while the second component of the team is the group of police negotiators. The primary function of the tactical team is for the protection of the SWAT team, especially the negotiators, the victims of the event, the general public, hostages (if any), and, lastly, the subject(s). The tactical team is also responsible for initiating any proactive or reactive options during the progression of the event. The negotiator team is responsible for the acquisition of any on-scene information deemed relevant to both the tactical and negotiator teams. The second primary function of the negotiators is, obviously, the active negotiation process.
On the arrival of the SWAT team, the tactical members will diligently establish an inner perimeter that allows for the establishment of a safe (within the constraints of the actual situation) environment for the tactical operations center (TOC). The TOC is the central decision and command area for the supervisory personnel. The TOC consists of the tactical commander, typically a lieutenant; a tactical team leader (sergeant); a negotiator team leader (lieutenant or sergeant); and the police psychologist. These individuals have been trained in the dynamics of critical events and usually are certified tactical commanders, with the police psychologist having received at least 80 hours in specialized courses in hostage and crisis negotiation. In major metropolitan police departments, such command and supervisory personnel have responded to more than 300 to 1,200 of these SWAT callouts to date. The responsibility of the TOC is to initially determine if the presence of the SWAT team at the specific scene is legal and/or necessary. A second task is to develop an initial action plan. Third, the TOC is responsible for maintaining an ongoing acceptable and risk-effective course of action. Within this action plan are typically four options: immediate assault on the location, selected sniper fire (an exigent situation to prevent the loss of life to innocent participants), introduction of chemical agents, and a negotiation process. It should be noted that these four options are fluid in nature and can be used in combination and in no specific order. The decision process to use any option is predicated on the anticipated outcome following the initiation of any one or more of these actions.
Most negotiation teams consist of a lead and backup negotiator, an electronics technician/negotiator, several support negotiators, a team leader, and a men-tal health consultant. Unless there is an exigent situation, the mental health consultant is never the lead negotiator (for ethical reasons), nor does just one negotiator initiate and maintain the negotiation process (for safety reasons). The lead negotiator is the police officer responsible for speaking directly to the subject and for developing and maintaining active listening skills and verbal tactics that will increase the likelihood for a successful resolution of the crisis. The most effective negotiators are those who are the best listeners, for it is only through listening that the negotiator will begin to understand and emotionally connect with the subject. The secondary negotiator is responsible for physically protecting (typically by preventing the lead negotiator from gradually placing his body and head in the line of fire while distracted by the negotiation process) the lead negotiator, monitoring the radio frequency, and listening to the negotiation process and relaying information and suggestions (typically made by the mental health professional) back to the lead negotiator. If necessary, during a protracted negotiation process, the backup negotiator may relieve the primary negotiator. The electronics technician/negotiator is responsible for maintaining all negotiator equipment, setting up all the required equipment at the scene, and interfacing with local telephone companies and national cellular companies, as well as coordinating the dispatch and arrival of the local power/utility company crew (in the event the tactical commander decides to cut the electrical power in the subject dwelling). The support negotiators are responsible for gathering all relevant information regarding the subjects (e.g., physical description, clothing, weapons, prescription/nonprescription medications, contact phone numbers, and arrest and psychiatric history). This is done via records checks and interviewing on-scene family members, friends, and witnesses. The support negotiators also maintain a running log of times and relevant events during the SWAT callout. A final responsibility of the support negotiators is to interview/debrief any hostages who are released during a hostage situation. The negotiator team leader assists the mental health consultant in the assignment of team responsibilities for the specific callout as well as providing consultation at the TOC. The mental health consultant provides assistance to the negotiator team leader in negotiator assignments, provides psychological personality assessment, psychotropic consultation, monitors negotiator team performance and stress reactions, and provides dispositional consultation to the TOC.
Once the team responsibilities are determined, the TOC commander, tactical and negotiator team leaders, and the mental health consultant determine the communication mode by which the primary negotiator will attempt to make contact with the subject. This decision is predicated on officer safety first and the type of crisis situation. There are four means by which to communicate with the subject: police vehicle public address (PA) system, parabolic PA, telephone (land-line, cell phone, throw phone), or voice to voice. If the situation is a criminal, barricaded subject with no hostages, then either PA system is typically used for officer safety as well as the commanding tone of the PA. For all other situations, it is preferable to use some form of phone system and optimally establish tactical presence to support the use of voice to voice (the negotiator and subject are close enough to one another to communicate by simply speaking in a conversational tone to one another) for the resolution phase.
The Effects of Time and the Stockholm Syndrome
Hostage and crisis negotiation is an extremely complicated process incorporating three basic principles. First is the concept of time, in which, during most critical events, the extension of time invariably works in favor of successful resolution. During this so-called 60- to 90-minute rule, the passage of time allows for the ventilation of extreme emotional responses (for the subjects, hostages, and police officers). This dissipation of emotion allows for the introduction of more logical and rational problem solving, the influence of physiological needs, as well as, in the hostage situation, the opportunity for the hostages to escape.
However, it should never be assumed that hostages, if given the opportunity, will proactively initiate an escape or will assist the SWAT team in the successful resolution of the crisis. The underlying process, which is extremely powerful in most hostage situations, has become known as the Stockholm syndrome. This gradually occurs as a natural process of the passage of time (typically over hours and days); however, if there is significant violence at the onset of the taking of hostages, this syndrome compels an immediate and powerful influence. This syndrome compels one of the following behaviors: The hostages will begin to have positive feelings toward the hostage takers, the hostages will begin to develop negative feelings toward law enforcement, and the hostage takers will begin to develop positive feelings toward their hostages. The effect of the Stockholm syndrome on the negotiation process is rather consistent for the hostage takers and the hostages. The positive dynamic is that as time elapses, and if the hostage takers have begun to develop positive feelings toward their hostages, they are actually less likely to harm, much less kill, their hostages, whom they now begin to see as humans and not just objects for barter. However, negative aspects include the hostages’ inability to self-initiate their escape, communication by hostages of unreliable information to the negotiators either on release or during captivity, or hostages’ interference with the rescue operation. In rare cases, if the Stockholm syndrome is not severe, some hostages have been known to exaggerate the motives and weaponry of the hostage takers to the negotiators, with the intent of having the SWAT team conclude the hostage takers were more dangerous than in fact they were, and the tactical team eventually would feel compelled to initiate an active entry and perhaps kill the hostage takers.
The Influence of Power Tactics and Face-Saving
The second component in the negotiation process is incremental display of power, in the hope of avoiding its actual use during the negotiation process. A highly visible tactical containment combined with the third component, the presentation of face-saving issues, becomes the most integral component of the negotiation process. The process of negotiation and active listening assumes that the interchange among individuals even within a crisis situation possesses rewards and costs for both factions. The goal is to maximize mutual benefits while concurrently minimizing costs—an interaction in which the lead negotiator emphasizes a process of quid pro quo (something for something). Face-saving techniques allow both law enforcement and the subjects to maintain some semblance of control while agreeing on options of mutual gain. For example, a barricaded subject may have agreed to resolve the crisis by meeting the tactical officers outside his home, but the media have positioned their cameras where he will easily be videotaped being taken into custody. A face-saving negotiation is for both the TOC personnel and the subject to agree that he or she will be taken into custody at the back of his or her home to avoid the humiliation of his or her arrest being filmed by the local media.
Active Listening and the Resolution Process
The successful negotiator is highly skilled in active listening, the ability to focus on what the subject is speaking and to accurately process not only what the subject is saying but also the accurate emotional content that is actually being communicated. In other words, active listening is a technique to maximize an empathic exchange between the negotiator and the subject. There are 14 identified communications techniques within the active listening process. Experience has established that the most effective techniques are those of clarification and paraphrasing, primary-level empathy, and especially self-disclosure. Clarification and paraphrasing are most typically used during the initial contacts with the subject so that during these more emotionally laden contacts, the likelihood of miscommunication and misunderstanding is minimized. For example,
Negotiator: By “old lady,” do you mean your wife?
Subject: Yeah, that’s right, her.
Negotiator: So, it sounds like things have been going very badly between you two today.
Now, over time, the negotiator will begin to insert primary-level empathy and self-disclosure:
Negotiator: Boy, it sure sounds like everything appears to be falling apart, and you’re pretty angry and scared.
Subject: Yeah, but you really don’t know what it’s like for me now!
Negotiator: Maybe, maybe not, but I know that I was feeling really hurt and scared when I was going through my divorce a few years ago.
The relatively long process of establishing an empathic rapport between the lead negotiator and the subject is known as the “hook.” The hook is the point at which the negotiator has established a position of trust with the subject and is now able to lead the subject through the concrete process of either releasing hostages and/or being taken into custody. In all situations, once the subject is taken into custody by the SWAT team, the individual is arrested and taken to jail or, in the case of a crisis situation (suicidal subject), he or she is transported to the nearest crisis response unit.
The negotiation process for hostage and barricade incidents is the responsibility of highly trained and experienced SWAT teams. Communication, a clearly articulated and flexible plan, creativity, and patience are the key components predictive of a successful outcome. The negotiator’s application of active listening skills and the demonstration of empathic communication are critical skills for the successful resolution of critical incidents.
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- McMains, M. J., & Mullins, W. C. (2000). Crisis negotiations: Managing critical incidents and hostage situations in law enforcement and corrections. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.
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