A Guide to Crisis Negotiations

Article excerpt

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 critical incidents. 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 course. 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.


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.


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. …