While on the job and thinking about what we would do in certain situations, I know we have all thought about walking up on a crime in progress. We have probably all done that a time or two in our careers. But “When/Then” thinking has to go a little beyond that when we start down that path of thinking through every situation we come across on our daily shift. Think about how easy an interrupted crime in progress could turn into a hostage or barricaded incident. There are generally three types of hostage situations: criminal, mental illness/domestic and terrorism. In our areas we are paid to protect, could one of those three types of incidents become a reality? Absolutely they could.
And it could happen in a heartbeat. Criminal situations can include violent crimes gone wrong where a fleeing suspect could take hostages for cover. These types of hostage takers participate in either a well-planned or spontaneous reaction to a life-preservation situation. An experienced criminal may end up taking a hostage accidentally or as a consequence of flight, thus the hostages are then used as barter for escape because the criminal is trapped.
Mental illness or domestic situations can arise from a dispute into a hostage/barricade situation with little or no warning. Back to the “When/Then” scenario. Are you a hostage negotiator? I hope you didn’t say “No”. Because we are ALL Hostage Negotiators!!! We come by it naturally in this line of work. Think about it for a moment. Whether we are enforcing the rules, getting a person to comply to arrest or simply asking someone to move along, all these acts are negotiations; although less complex than an armed hostage-taker holding frightened patrons at a pub, they are all negotiations.
While the latter is a dynamic event that could result in the loss of life, so can many other things we do every day. We even negotiate outside the context of law enforcement work, be it for a better deal on the price of a car, with our spouse/significant other or our children, we negotiate, and the first step to a successful negotiation is communication. So as first responders, we have to start this negotiation process with desperate and irrational people making criminal and horrible decisions. And then the good news hits; “The trained Negotiator is about 45 minutes away!!!! It’s all yours, first responders, and lives are depending on us to start dealing with the situation. You may be “It”, for a while and good communication skills are about to be tested. Work through a process called “The 5 C’s”. Control, Contain, Communicate, Call SWAT, Create a Plan.
We must first control the situation. We need to size it up quickly and control those in and outside the “Hot” zone. Control the immediate area and attempt to contain the scene by keeping innocent people from entering the area and keep the hostage taker from harming anyone or gaining access to other innocent people or other weapons of opportunity. We need to contain the scene and start looking at our options and resources. Mostly, control ourselves!! Communicate!! When the first responders open a line of communication with the subject, it provides an opportunity for the subject to focus on law enforcement and not on harming themselves or any hostages that may be present.
Crisis communications is simply using the art of persuasion to encourage the subject into mitigating their own behavior so that the subject can be safely detained without harming themselves or those in proximity. Crisis communications is a process in which time can help solve the problem. Rushing this process could result in a cascading failure. Now may not be the time to resolve the situation, therefore it’s time to develop a rapport with the subject. We must immediately communicate with our partners, dispatch and others first responders, but communication with the hostage taker is critical.
Don’t make the mistake of transitioning into making demands at this point, but contemporary crisis negotiation principles show that the subject just wants immediate freedom to try to sort things out. You may have the opportunity to obtain small bits of information about them which could help develop a general profile and picture of who they are and what’s going on in their life that led to the incident. The onset of the negotiation should be kept simple. I would suggest something along the lines of identifying who you are and what your goal is—perhaps saying “My name is … and I am here to help.” Make it known that you are there to help, but that you have limited authority.
This is a critical aspect of any negotiation and needs to be part of your initial contact with the subject. The first responder should indicate that he/she can talk about things (demands and deadlines) but will have to defer any decisions on these matters to the incident commander. This takes a lot off of your shoulders and makes the hostage taker have to think and make decisions.
If you have successfully communicated with dispatch, or assigned someone else to communicate with dispatch, ensure that SWAT and hostage negotiators are coming. Create an immediate action plan by communicating with your partners and making sure plans are being formed and carried out. In a stressful encounter, often two heads are better than one. Think thru the process and what protocol needs to be carried out.
All negotiations should be under the spirit of bringing the situation to a safe and successful conclusion. This includes the hostage taker, if possible. While it may be preferable to you that trained negotiators and tactical operators will arrive and take the lead role in a traumatic situation, first responders are critically important to a successful ending by attempting to initiate a basic dialogue with the subject, especially if hostages are present. Initial communications can provide a significant benefit to the peaceful resolve of the incident.
Statistics show that on average, better than 90% of all hostage and barricade situations are successfully resolved through communications. And what a great ending to a very bad situation.