September 18, 2011

Hostage Negotiation 101

Posted in Behaviour, Society, Strategy at 21:24 by graham

I recently finished Gary Noesner’s Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, by the F.B.I.‘s former head of and founder of their hostage negotiation unit. The book is a great read (and I suspect heavily ghost-written). Here’s what I learnt:

Your goal as a negotiator is to get the target(s) (the person or people you are trying to arrest) to surrender peacefully to law enforcement.

Sometimes there are hostages, and then your priority is securing their release, but usually there are not. By getting them to put down their weapons and come out you are usually saving their lives, and also protecting your colleagues.

The last resort is an armed assault by the SWAT team. Prior to negotiation being taken seriously by law enforcement, this was the only option.

Make exclusive contact

First and foremost, you need to get in contact with them. Usually they are keen to talk, and most often you can use the phone line. Sometimes you have to get the SWAT team to bring them a field telephone. Sometimes you stand outside the window or at the foot of the stairs, and shout. And occasionally, as in the Beltway sniper case you have to ask the media to say things and hope the target hears.

Control their environment:

  • Their phone line goes only to you. Not to the press, not to anyone else. You are their only hope, and their only friend.

  • Manage what they can see from their windows, and what they can hear.

Listen calmly

Listen. Often they are highly emotional, scared, and cornered. A friendly listener at the end of the phone can make all the difference.

Initially they will rant and rave at you, they need to get that out of their system. Wait. Listen. Stay calm. Once they settle down, change the negotiator, so that they are not having to build rapport with someone they have verbally abused.

Encourage them to draw up a list of demands. When dealing with a group, identify the individuals most likely to reach a peaceful settlement, and deal exclusively with them.

The author recounts a prison siege where the prisoners had no leadership and no demands. The negotiator had to help them organize themselves, and babysit them into drawing up a list of demands. He then got the prison authorities to say they agreed to the demands in principle, and the siege ended.

Build rapport

Build trust. He usually introduces himself by saying: “Hi I’m Gary and I’m here to make sure you get out safe”.

Humanize yourself. Gary’s team sent in pictures of themselves, hand written notes, even videos of the negotiators playing with their children.

Learn everything you can about the target and their background. Bring up any common ground.

If they won’t talk to you, find a neutral intermediary they will trust.

Talk, even if they don’t answer. Hearing your voice will reassure the hostages. It also allows you to address any fears or concerns you think they have, which they haven’t vocalized yet. Defuse those fears.

You don’t have to be nice

Don’t give anything unless it is reciprocated. For example if they want food they have to send out a hostage. The exception is if your concession would help build trust, or if they have nothing to give up (except themselves).

If negotiation stalls, get the SWAT team to put on a show of force. Make it clear you are their only option of making it out safe. The exception here is if you think that might endanger the hostages. You’re the good cop to the SWAT’s bad cop.

If that doesn’t help, cut creature comforts – electricity, gas, water, etc.

Go slowly. You control the situation, not the hostage taker. In one situation the target requested a cup of coffee with milk and sugar. It was delivered two hours later, cold, and black.

Most significant demands on their part you will reply to with “I’m not authorized to do that, but I’ll ask my boss”. You’re on their side, against your nasty boss. They need to work with you to help you make their demands acceptable to that dis-agreeable boss of yours.

Lie if you have to, but be very careful because getting caught out will damage trust. There are certain legal restrictions on negotiators, mostly that they have to give the target an opportunity to surrender before the SWAT team attacks. You need to say and do whatever it takes to secure the safe release of the hostages. This often involves minimizing the crime, assuring them that everything will be fine once they come out: “you haven’t hurt anyone, no serious crime has been committed”.

Get them to focus on the future, on life after the crisis (even when you know they don’t have a future). It’s all going to be OK, they’ll be back fishing in that favorite lake of theirs in no time. Their boss is holding their job for them.

Remind them about the relatively minor crime which started the situation. Surely no-one should get hurt over such a trifle:

  • the Waco siege started after the Branch Davidians refused to allow law enforcement to execute a search warrant

  • Ruby ridge was initially about making illegal firearms (sawing off a shotgun barrel).

Manage the SWAT team

The way Gary Noesner describes it, every stand-off is a double stand-off. You are trying to convince the target to exit the building peacefully, and you are trying to convince the SWAT team to stay out of the building. Traditional law enforcement is ego-driven and in a hurry. They do not readily accept waiting several weeks for someone to agree to be arrested.

If you are re-assuring the target that their crime’s are minor, and then the SWAT team moves an assault vehicle onto the front lawn, that undermines your relationship. You need to work together.

The author ascribes the failures of the Waco siege to lack of co-ordination between negotiators and SWAT, and in fact to SWAT’s complete disregard for negotiation. Gary Noesner was chief negotiator at the Waco siege, and Stalling For Time features a fascinating account of the situation.


Stalling For Time is an exciting and interesting read. I was surprised how little formal psychology is involved – negotiators have a ‘street psychology’, which matches many formal findings, but I expected the F.B.I. to have behavioral scientists and research psychologists on staff. Possibly they do, but it wasn’t mentioned.

I am grateful for people like Gary Noesner, who do an immensely difficult and important job on two levels. Firstly they save the lives of hostages, hostage takers, and law enforcement. Secondly, they teach traditional law enforcement personnel that patience, humility, and understanding are as important to their jobs as running around waving assault rifles.

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