How to free a hostage
When lives are on the line, how can one person resolve a hostage crisis with psychology? Ed Chipperfield meets the world’s top negotiators to find out.
The thought of being taken hostage is a frightening prospect to imagine. The initial panic, followed by the horror of realising the nature of the situation and the awful resignation that your life can be taken on a whim. The news bristles with examples, whether they’re in the Middle East, off the coast of Somalia or in a bank on a British high street. In the grip of the drama of these stories, it’s easy to forget that the true burden of resolving these crises lies with just one person: the negotiator.
At its most basic level, hostage taking is a form of bargaining. But there’s more to it than calmly striking a deal in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Since the 1970s, the application of psychological principles has enabled negotiators to engage with the sometimes erratic, sometimes deadly hostage takers on a scientific footing. To explain how, we asked the world’s leading negotiators how they operate in a typical hostage situation.
0.00hrs: the take
Whether it’s a phone call or a gunshot, the situation begins with whatever brings attention to the criminal, according to Dr Harvey Schlossberg, the man often referred to as the father of hostage negotiation. After 20 years in the NYPD, he studied for a doctorate in psychology and in 1973 founded the department’s Hostage Negotiations Team, developing the best procedures to deal with hostage takers – procedures still used around the world today.
“To be a negotiator you have to understand why people take hostages,” he says. “It’s a desperate act. This is their last chance to get some power. What it says is that their objective is very important; it would have to be because one of the possible outcomes is the death of the hostage taker. By taking a hostage, or hostages, he’s taking a wild chance. He’s helpless.”
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A negotiator is sensitive enough to think about the hostage taker as someone who needs help, Schlossberg points out. They have to be compassionate and willing to sit and listen to all the threats, curses and demands without losing sight of their objective – getting people out alive.
0.30hrs: initial assessment
After 30 minutes, a negotiator will be able to appraise how deadly the situation is. “The rule we go by is, if they go past the half-hour without killing anybody, they’re probably not going to kill,” says Schlossberg. “After the heightened arousal state subsides, if they do kill someone, they’re telling you that you’re wasting your time trying to talk.”
If that happens, the only option left is assault – the last resort and a huge risk to all concerned. A tactical team will storm the site in the hope of saving lives by doing so. But if there’s no kill, then negotiaton can still go ahead.
0.45hrs: negotiation begins
In these initial stages, the role of a negotiator is simple: calm the situation down. “For the hostage taker this is a time of chaos,” says Dr Gerard Bailes, a consultant forensic psychologist who works with the UK police. “We’re trying to find out what’s actually happening and trying to contain the situation.” As police teams take their positions and the hostage taker digs in, the containment itself becomes a source of tension.
“Like any negotiation, it’s about persuasion,” says Bailes. “But it’s being done in a situation that is an absolute Pandora’s box.”
Schlossberg’s approach might surprise many, but it has become the textbook way of dealing with crises. “To the negotiator it’s irrelevant what the criminal wants,” he says. “There’s not even much talking involved. It’s about getting the criminal to get their point across: eventually they’ll repeat it so often they lose interest in it. They’ll just burn themselves out.”
This is the moment where the negotiator must identify themself as the only line to the outside world, becoming, in Schlossberg’s words, “a substitute for the hostage”. They become the hostage taker’s verbal punchbag, drawing attention away from the captive.
Schlossberg also reveals a relatively new technique: switching the sex of the negotiator during the beginning of the crisis. “We start off with a male voice, especially if the situation is violent, then replace that with a female negotiator after an hour or so. All of a sudden, mummy’s on the phone. No matter how bad they are, they remember her as nurturing and soft.”
The lines of communication are open. Nobody has been killed, and the demands have been stated. Demands relate to the type of hostage taker: they could be political (such as those in the Ken Bigley case in Iraq), securing a means of escape (such as criminals trapped in a bank) and then there are the nebulous demands of the psychologically disturbed.
Next the negotiator profiles the hostage taker’s mental state. “We try to test hypotheses, without being too probing,” reveals Dr Carol Ireland, a forensic psychologist who trains crisis negotiators in the prison service and hospitals. “Are they responding to stimuli that aren’t there? Are there indicators of delusions? We look at how they speak to the negotiator and what might be interfering with them.”
These tests revealing the hostage takers mental state could then determine the next course of action. The negotiator might emphasise personal safety, or the need for medication to help.
“A person does this out of a crisis. We use empathy, active listening [a technique where the listener encourages someone to express their opinions as well as confirming their main points] and rapport building to get them to a place where they are more rational.”
By now the negotiator knows the kind of hostage taker they’re dealing with: psychologically disturbed, a criminal caught in the act, or a terrorist group (see ‘Types of hostage taker’, p77). They’ll also know their mood and demands.
Now their toolkit turns to distraction. It’s unlikely any of the demands will be granted – once you do that, more unrealistic demands are next. What the psychology of the situation demands is to get the hostage takers to dissect what they’re doing and why.
“The idea is to keep them problem-solving,” Schlossberg advises. “Get them talking. Whatever the most important thing was when this started, once verbalised it begins not to make sense, or else they just start to solve it themselves.” Once the initial chaos and excitement subsides, by asking the hostage taker to keep on examining what they are doing, they’re forced to see it as disproportionate, even absurd, and are more likely to work towards a safe exit strategy with a negotiator.
According to Schlossberg, the NYPD way is to take the conversation in unrelated directions. “It shapes the conversation into nonsense,” he admits. “But distraction is key, it causes them to shift gears: ‘You want a car: what kind of car? How far are you going? Do you want one with air conditioning?’ They’re not creative people, and having to consider this stuff distracts them.”
These tactics aren’t easy to apply with one type of hostage taker, however: terrorists. Usually far from the home country of their hostages, this group aims for concessions of money, exchange of prisoners or alterations to national policy. It is the policy of Britain’s Foreign Office not to make substantive concessions. “That includes paying ransoms, facilitating the payment of ransoms and releasing detainees. That’s our guiding principle. That’s what governs everything we do,” a Foreign Office spokesman explains. The emphasis is more on communication, to support the release of hostages.
Headline cases of hostages taken by religiously and politically motivated groups have evolved into a kind of political theatre, according to one former western security official who agreed to speak to Focus. They refer to cases such as Ken Bigley, the civil engineer executed in 2004. “The hostage takers are pretending to be taking part in a political dialogue; what might be the case is that they are using it as a smokescreen, for propaganda, publicity and fear,” the official said.
“That’s a particularly dangerous type of hostage taking because, in most cases, the assumption is the hostage takers have a significant interest in keeping that hostage alive. In these situations that doesn’t hold true at all.” Not all hostage situations are negotiable.
3.00hrs: basic needs
The majority of hostage events are spontaneous. As such, the hostages and their captor are unlikely to have provisions. At around this point, hunger and thirst are bound to start becoming an issue, as the initial rush of adrenaline wears off.
Basic necessities are a negotiable commodity, says Schlossberg, but can only be offered after the release of a hostage: “As the negotiator I would say, ‘I will try and get you some food, but how about showing some good faith by letting one of the hostages out?’”
You would think it was imperative to send in food and water to help sustain the hostages. Not so, says Schlossberg. In fact, standard negotiating technique tells you to ignore them completely. Schlossberg explains why. “We don’t ask for the hostages to be put on the phone, we don’t ask after them,” he says. “The idea is to show that they have no value – except what the criminal can buy with that hostage. We want the criminal to believe that we don’t care about the hostage, which isn’t true of course. We lead him to believe also that whatever he asks for he may get. Which, of course, is again probably not true.”
As the negotiator continues his psychological probing and distraction, it’s inevitable that the hostage takers will start to tire. While a negotiator is able to take breaks, the captors are on duty every second, a fact that can be used to your advantage. “They’re in an emotionally heightened state. There’s a physiological component to that, and hormones take their toll,” Bailes says.
“One of the things the surge of adrenalin does is deplete your reserves of sugars: if you’re under pressure like this, the stress combined with the fatigue can make you make mistakes.”
In Schlossberg’s experience, extreme fatigue could mean instant success. “It could be two hours, it could be eight, but they’re going to want to sleep at some point,” he says. “We’ve had a significant number of cases where everybody falls asleep – the criminals, hostages, everyone – and the police just go in while they’re dozing.”
6.00hrs: termination phase
In the climax of the situation, there are only three possible outcomes: surrender and arrest; tactical assault leading to death or arrest; or demands being met. The latter is the least likely.
In these often-tragic last moments of a crisis, there is one type of hostage taker whose aims transform the crime into something quite different. “The ones that cause the most trouble – political takers, terrorists – might be willing to die for their cause,” Schlossberg admits. “So it’s not really a hostage situation anymore. No matter what you do, it’s likely to end badly.”
“The only real resolution is a safe resolution,” Gerard Bailes emphasises. “The police still have a responsibility to the people in there – hostage and taker alike. That’s the bottom line. Even if the risks are considerable, the police may have to go in to protect the people involved, even the hostage taker if they’re likely to harm themselves.” It’s tough being a negotiator, but as our experts have proven in the field, it’s still a place where the application of tried and tested techniques can save lives.
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