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Handling the Hostage Calls


Hostage calls are generally either calls from the hostage taker himself or from someone calling to report a hostage situation. The telecommunication is the first point of contact, and must fulfill the role of negotiator until one arrives. In this article, we will explore some techniques for gathering information, and handling a telephone call from a hostage taker. It will not make the telecommunicator a hostage negotiator – that takes training and experience- but it will enable the telecommunicator to draw from a body of knowledge to process the call properly.
 There are two objectives in handling hostage situations. The primary
 objective is to preserve life. This includes the lives of hostages, civilians,
 personnel, and even the hostage taker himself. The secondary objective is the
 apprehension of the perpetrator, and the recovery of property. It is important to
 keep these objectives in mind when handling hostage calls.
 There are a few principles to keep in mind as well. The hostage, as a
 person, has no value to the hostage taker other than as a tool to get what he
 wants. However, it is important to realize that the hostage taker has just as much
 at stake as authorities do to not let the situation get violent. Getting killed is not
 going to help the hostage taker unless suicide is his motive.
 There are three crucial variables in hostage situations. These are power,
 information and time-delay. The hostage taker is seeking power over life and
 over freedom. Perceived power is more important than actual power possessed.
 Information is vital for authorities to have a clear understanding of the situation.
 Time is perhaps the most crucial element in determining the outcome of a
 hostage situation. The more time passes, the more likely it is that the situation
 will be resolved without loss of life. There are several reasons for this. Time can
 reduce stress and anxiety, and increases rationality of the hostage taker. Time
 also increases the need for basics such as food and drink. Although many
 hostages think about it, few attempt to escape. The passage of time, however,
 increases opportunities for hostages to escape.
 The passage of time also allows for rapport to develop between the
 negotiator and the hostage taker, and sometimes the hostage takers’
 expectations are reduced.
 There are negative effects to the passing of time, however. Exhaustion on
 the part of authorities is a factor, as is a loss of objectivity. Boredom also sets in
 and can hinder negotiation tactics.
 When handling a call from a hostage taker, there are several techniques
 to keep in mind. The caller may very well be in an emotional or agitated state.
 One way to calm the caller is to speak in a voice that is softer and slower than
 the suspects. Do not let your emotions rise to the same level as the suspect.
 Relate to the hostage taker on his level. Adapt your conversation to his
 educational and vocabulary level. Listen for clues as to the subject's emotional
 state, truthfulness, rationality and willingness to negotiate. Listen also for a
 change in these things, as well as a change in demands. Again, speak slowly
 and softly.
 One technique to use in taking calls from hostage takers is to ask open ended
 questions. In doing so, the hostage taker cannot answer with a simple
 "yes" or "no". By having to elaborate on his responses, the hostage taker may be
 able to release some of the anger and frustration he is experiencing. It is also a
 way to obtain more information from the hostage taker. Once critical information,
 such as location, has been obtained and personnel have been dispatched,
 allowing the suspect to “vent” is encouraged. Downplay what the suspect has
 done so far. Show understanding through your words and tone of voice. Be
 supportive when the suspect is expressing rational thoughts.
 Repeat or paraphrase what the hostage taker tells you. When he is
 expressing emotions, it is important to label and respond to the emotion. "I
 understand that you are angry, could you tell me more about it?" Encourage the
 hostage taker to talk through statements such as, "Oh, I see."… "Is that so?"… "I
 would like to hear your side"… and "Could you tell me about it?"
 There are several things that a telecommunicator must find out in order to
 effectively help responding personnel with a hostage situation. Some of the
 questions may vary, depending upon whether one is speaking to the hostage
 taker himself or someone calling to report a hostage situation.
 As is typical in caller interrogation, it is important to find out where the
 activity is taking place. Then find out what has occurred and who is involved.
 Who is the suspect? What are his goals? How many hostages are there? What
 are their physical descriptions? What is their physical condition? Are there any
 Find out when the incident occurred. How long have the hostages been
 held? What are the hostage taker's demands? What weapons does he have in
 his possession?
 There are many things that a telecommunicator can do to help responding
 personnel even once a negotiator is on the scene. The telecommunicator can get
 a description of the building in terms of layout, escape routes and where
 telephones are located within the building. The telecommunicator can also
 identify the safest approach and escape routes as well as observation points for
 responding personnel.
 Background information can also be discovered about the suspect in
 terms of character, intelligence, emotional state, medications or problems he may
 have been facing. All of these can be an asset to those engaged in negotiations
 with the suspect.
 Since the telecommunicator may play the role of negotiator until one
 arrives, it is important to be aware of the characteristics of good negotiators.
 It is important for a negotiator to have interpersonal sensitivity. This means
 the ability to sense how another person is feeling, even if that person is engaged
 in something criminal like the holding of hostages. It also means being tolerant of
 people whose lifestyle or life choices may be different from the negotiator's own.
 Cognitive complexity is also a characteristic of a good negotiator. The ability to
 process several tasks simultaneously is required of the job.
 A tolerance of ambiguity is also essential. Nearly everything in a hostage
 situation is uncertain and unclear. The negotiator may have mixed feelings
 toward the hostage taker. While sympathizing with the problems that have placed
 the suspect in that position, that does not necessarily correspond to acceptance
 of the hostage taker's actions. In addition, the hostage taker is experiencing
 ambiguous feelings and the negotiator needs to understand and accept this.
 A positive self-concept is a crucial characteristic of a good negotiator. A
 strong self-concept will allow the negotiator to listen to the hostage taker's anger
 and abuse without reacting to it on a personal level.
 It is important for a negotiator to have low authoritarianism. Research has
 shown that people in positions of authority generally do not make good
 negotiators. This may be because the person in a position of authority is trying to
 serve both the department and the suspect at the same time. It is difficult to have
 two masters. A much better solution is a negotiator who can concentrate all of his
 or her efforts on the suspect.
 Previous interviewing experience is a helpful characteristic. This is
 because interviewers are trained to listen, a skill crucial to successful negotiation.
 Past experience in stressful situations is an asset in hostage negotiations.
 This will ensure that the negotiator has the emotional stability to handle whatever
 might occur during a hostage situation.
 Verbal skills are a must. While listening is crucial, the negotiator must be
 able to persuade the hostage taker that the negotiator's point of view is the
 rational and correct one. The negotiator must be able to use logical arguments to
 persuade the hostage taker, and must be able to counteract the hostage taker's
 The negotiator must be able to remain flexible under pressure. The
 situation can change very quickly in a hostage situation and the negotiator must
 be willing to flow with the changes.
 The negotiator must believe in the power of verbal persuasion and must
 believe that resolving the situation through negotiation is the best alternative. If
 the negotiator is thinking, "Gosh, it would be better if we just blew this guy away"
 there is unlikely to be a successful resolution to the conflict.
 Bargaining skills, the ability to compromise, are important. Knowing what
 can and cannot be negotiated, and convincing the suspect to take less than what
 he desires takes ability and effort.
 The more skills of a successful negotiator that a telecommunicator can
 incorporate into his/her conversation with a hostage taker, the more likely the
 situation can be resolved successfully without loss of life.
 As mentioned previously, time is one of the most crucial elements of
 hostage negotiation. The more time that passes, the more likely that the
 situation will be resolved without loss of life.
 One method of stalling for time is to discuss everything in detail. Ask for
 detailed descriptions. Ask questions that elaborate on information the suspect
 has given you. It is helpful to keep the perpetrator in a constant decision making
 status. If the hostage taker wants sandwiches, find out what kind of sandwiches.
 What type of bread would he like? Obviously, this should not be done to the
 point of annoyance. The idea is that statements can be elaborated upon to gain
 time for responding personnel to organize and consider their options.
 Open-ended questions can accomplish the same objectives as discussing
 things in detail. Statements such as "Tell me about when you first started to feel
 this way" or "What events led up to this?" may encourage the hostage taker to
 vent and again provide additional time.
 The importance of listening has already been discussed. It is necessary to
 emphasize the importance of not interrupting the hostage taker. Not only might
 this lead to aggravating the suspect, but once he has been cut off, he may no
 longer elaborate on his thoughts. Allow the suspect to ramble on, offering only
 the usual interjections of "Uh-huh,” "I see, " and the like.
 Restatement of content, or paraphrasing, is another stalling tactic. Tell the
 suspect that you want to make sure you understand him, and then repeat the
 content. Pause to ask questions such as, "Am I correct so far?" This allows the
 hostage taker to confirm and perhaps elaborate further on what has been said.
 Both of which buy additional time.
 Having the hostage taker reflect upon his feelings can be another delaying
 tactic. Statements such as, "I understand you are angry, has there been another
 time when you felt this way? How did you handle it?" or "Why do you think this
 upset you so much?" Requiring the suspect to reflect on his feelings and
 emotions also has the added bonus of perhaps calming down the suspect.
 Information provided by:
Kathy Schatel, APCO Institute Services Coordinator



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