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Developing an action plan to resolve hostage situations.

Much has been written about managing hostage situations in prisons and jails. The more enlightened correctional systems have mandatory training on handling such situations; in some places this training includes instruction on what staff members should do if taken hostage. Most large institutions also have emergency response units that are specially trained to manage such disturbances.

In probation and parole, however, little attention has been paid to this issue, even though officers have been taken hostage on occasion. This article offers some guidelines for agencies developing policies and procedures for handling hostage situations.

Much of the information that follows is based on the experiences of the Parole and Community Services Division of the California Department of Corrections. In 1974, the division started a Crisis Intervention Training Program. The program was later expanded to take into account lessons learned after an agent was held hostage at gunpoint for more than four hours in 198 1. Although the agent was released unharmed, division officials realized they needed to add more training on procedures for such crises.

Types of Involvement

There are three ways a probation or parole officer might become involved in a hostage situation:

* as a hostage;

* as an officer who receives a telephone

call from a hostage-taker

informing him or her that a co-worker

has been taken hostage;


* as an officer dispatched to the

scene of a hostage situation

where a co-worker is the hostage

or where one of his or her offenders

is the hostage-taker.

In all these situations, good information and procedures are critical.

Types of Hostage Situations

Hostage situations may be divided into two general types-planned or unplanned.

Planned. Planned situations normally are intended to accomplish some preconceived goal, such as freeing a prisoner, forcing some type of political or social change, or publicizing a cause or a perceived wrong.

These situations, while they occur far less frequently than unplanned situations, are potentially the most dangerous because the hostage-takers--usually there are more than one--are committed to a political or religious ideal and may be prepared to die for their beliefs. In these situations, participants frequently are trained and assigned specific tasks, such as being a negotiator, a guard or an assassin.

Unplanned. Unplanned situations usually arise out of panic. The hostage is simply a "target of opportunity." These situations almost always result in the hostage's survival. Given the nature of a probation and parole officer's job, this is the type of situation an officer would most likely find himself or herself involved in.

We can further divide unplanned situations into two sub-categories: those initiated by people with criminal intent and those initiated by emotionally unstable people.

Hostage-takers in the first sub-category usually seize a hostage when they are caught in the act of committing a crime. These situations rarely involve more than one hostage. The hostage-taker may demand an escape route, amnesty or weapons. These situations are the most survivable because of the hostage-taker's lack of planning and commitment to a goal and because they seldom involve more than one hostage and one hostage-taker.

Emotionally unstable hostage-takers usually seize a random hostage. Demands might include anything from publicity for a particular problem to redress for a perceived wrong to termination of some type of treatment (such as psychotropic medication). Often the individual is simply trying to get attention or is making a plea for help. These situations can be dangerous because of the hostage-taker's unpredictability.

Four Variations

The following variations can dramatically change or alter the circumstances of a hostage situation.

1. Single hostage/single hostage-taker. In this type, the hostage-taker is least likely to kill or harm the hostage because the hostage is the only bargaining tool. Also, a single hostage-taker is more likely to give up due to fatigue and because of the inevitable bonding that occurs in a hostage situation.

2. Multiple hostages/single hostage-taker. These scenarios are slightly more dangerous because the hostage-taker can harm one or more of the hostages and still have bargaining power. Also, each hostage is susceptible to the behavior of the other hostages. However, these scenarios lend themselves to the possibility of escape simply because a single hostage-taker cannot simultaneously watch all the hostages and negotiate.

3. Single hostage/multiple hostage-takers. These scenarios have nearly all of the aspects noted in the first variation.

4. Multiple hostages/multiple hostage-takers. This variation is clearly the most dangerous for the hostages. Hostages are expendable without giving up bargaining power, bickering and different agendas among the hostage-takers can cause problems for the hostages, and all hostages are at risk from each other's behavior. Finally, these situations can go on a long time because of the reduced fatigue factor.

The good news is that based on the nature of the job and available research, probation and parole officers are most likely to find themselves in the safest of all hostage situations--an unplanned, criminal type where there is a single hostage and a single hostage-taker.

Recommendations for Agents Held Hostage

A number of behavioral dos and don'ts apply if an individual is taken as a hostage. For the most part, these principles apply to all the types and categories of hostage situations.

1. Don't panic. While this may be difficult, research data clearly demonstrate that an individual who can maintain some control and use the principles listed here has the best chance of surviving the ordeal.

2. Don't threaten or argue with your captor. This is not the time to challenge the hostage-taker's authority, behavior or control over you. Neither is it the time to attempt to counsel the individual.

3. Announce your behavior in advance. If you are not restrained and have some mobility, always inform the hostage-taker of your movements before acting. You do not want to have your movement misinterpreted. Also, move slowly--the hostage-taker may easily misinterpret sudden movements.

4. Buy time. The more time passes, the better the chance a hostage will survive. An analysis of numerous hostage situations shows that the passage of time enhances the probability that a hostage will get out safely. Buying time is sometimes difficult to do because the natural inclination for most people is to force a resolution in order to manage their own anxiety and stress. Clearly, an officer needs to control this inclination.

5. Avoid "red-flag" subjects. If you know or suspect that certain topics will further excite the hostage-taker (such as religion or family relationships), avoid them at all costs.

6. Allow bonding to occur. A phenomenon recognized in many hostage situations is bonding between hostages and their captors. This is known as the Stockholm Syndrome (for the location where it was first recognized). Perhaps the best example of this occurring was in the Patty Hearst incident, in which she not only identified with her hostage-takers but also attempted to protect them when they were apprehended.

To enhance this phenomenon, the hostage should take steps to make the hostage-taker see him or her as a person rather than a thing. It is harder to harm a person for whom you have developed feelings. Talk about your emotions (such as fear or not wanting to die or be injured), your family or the consequences if you or the hostage-taker die. Obviously, don't persist if this talk upsets your captor.

7. Don't be a spokesperson. In situations involving more than one hostage, do not become the spokesperson for the group. If someone is going to be killed as a message to the negotiators, spokespersons may be the first.

8. Find out what the hostage-taker wants. If a hostage negotiation team is in place, do not attempt to negotiate. Leave that to the experts. However, before they are in place, find out what the hostage-taker wants in exchange for your release. If it is within your power to do so, give the hostage-taker what he or she is asking for. Lying is perfectly acceptable in this situation--for example, promising amnesty when you do not have the authority.

9. Carefully consider trying to escape. If the opportunity to escape presents itself, take advantage of it. However, in doing so be very careful. If a hostage management unit is in place, be aware that the perimeter may be armed with sharpshooters trained to shoot anything that moves.

10. Try to communicate with the negotiators. If the hostage-taker is in communication with the negotiating team and you are given an opportunity to speak with the negotiators, by all means do so. Without upsetting the hostage-taker, provide as much useful informion as you can--your condition and the condition (and number) of any other hostages, what type of weapons the hostage-taker has, and information about his or her identity and emotional condition.

11. Communicate the exit plan. If the hostage-taker wants to give up and surrender his or her weapon to you, make certain you communicate the exit plan with the hostage management team. It is critical for team members to be familiar with the exit plan and to be informed about what is occurring.

These dos and don'ts come from the analysis of numerous hostage situations around the world and from our own experience with hostage situations in California. While certainly not foolproof, they give an individual the best chance of surviving a hostage situation.

Procedures to Follow During a Phone Call

When the agent was taken hostage in California, the hostage-taker made two telephone calls to the parole office and spoke with the officer-of-the-day before the local law enforcement hostage management team was in place. The caller told the officer that he was holding an agent hostage and demanded that the officer immediately supply him with additional weapons or he was going to kill the hostage. He gave a 30-minute deadline for the response.

At that time there were no procedures to provide guidance to an agent who may receive such a call. As a result of the incident, the following procedures/guidelines were put in place and added to the training program:

1. Obtain as much factual information as possible. Find out the name of the hostage and the hostage-taker, the exact site of the situation, the telephone number at the site, the hostage's condition, the type of weapons involved, and the hostage-taker's demands. Caution: Do not press for this information or allow it to become part of the negotiations.

2. While the call is in progress, try to inform the appropriate law enforcement agency where the hostage situation is taking place and request the agency's assistance. (If this is not possible, do so immediately after the call.) Provide as much information to the agency as possible, differentiating between factual and assumed information.

3. If the contact person in the office is not the unit supervisor or manager, notify him or her as soon as possible and provide the known information.

4. Do not engage in negotiations with the hostage-taker. If the individual attempts to begin negotiations, take down the demands and tell him or her that you do not have authority to meet the demands but that someone will be in touch as soon as possible to discuss the demands. Attempt to do this without cutting off the lines of communication or increasing the caller's anxiety.

5. If the hostage-taker simply wants to talk (rather than negotiate) attempt to calm the caller and encourage him or her to release the hostage. In doing so, you should: offer your name; make it clear that you want to talk and are willing to listen; ask the caller's name if it is not known; try to use first names to establish a rapport; and ask neutral questions such as "How are you feeling?" and "Is anyone hurt?" The officers should generally reassure the hostage-taker that things can be worked out if the hostage is released.

Do not make false promises or commitments you can't meet. Do nothing to escalate the situation--this is not the time for lectures or threats. While you must avoid negotiations, if the hostage-taker is requesting psychiatric or medical help, offer to provide such assistance as soon as the hostage has been released.

You should ask to speak to the hostage. If this is permitted, attempt to find out his or her condition and other information that may be useful to the negotiation team (again, without upsetting the hostage-taker). Reassure the hostage that a plan has been set in motion to get him or her out safely.

The reason both the hostage and the officer receiving the call are discouraged from engaging in negotiations is that negotiation, particularly in a stressful situation, is a fine art and mistakes can be deadly to the hostages or the members of the hostage management team. Managing a hostage situation, and particularly negotiating, is best left to experts. Virtually all police and sheriff's departments have specially trained units available to manage these types of situations.

In some situations, a local law enforcement agency may be the first agency to learn that an agent has been taken hostage. An agency official would then likely contact the parole or probation office. If this happens, the responsibilities of the officer handling the call are somewhat different.

1. If it is not the unit supervisor who received the call, the employee receiving the call should contact the supervisor immediately.

2. The supervisor should provide the law enforcement agency with as much relevant information as possible about the hostage and the hostage-taker. The supervisor should designate someone (usually himself or herself) as a liaison with the law enforcement agency.

3. If the law enforcement agency makes a request or the supervisor feels it advisable, an officer should be sent to the command post at the scene to assist the negotiating team. The supervisor should try to select an officer who is familiar with the hostage-taker and the layout of the residence, who is acquainted with the hostage, and who is knowledgeable about hostage situations and tactics.

4. To help provide accurate and timely information to the hostage management team, the following information should be kept current and available in each office: a current color photograph of each employee with his or her physical description written on the back; a list of employees' vehicles (including license number, make, model and color); all employees' blood types; information on medication employees take; and the name of each employee's physician. If officers are armed, there should be a list of each firearm's make, model and serial number.

5. It may be advisable to establish a contact point or person to handle inquiries from the media, family members and the public. When the situation is resolved and the employee is freed, he or she should be referred immediately for evaluation and any necessary assistance for post-trauma problems. Even in situations that are quickly resolved, some debriefing and counseling is normally necessary. Administrative time off or temporary reassignment should be given serious consideration.

Requests for Agency Assistance

On a number of occasions in California, we received calls from law enforcement agencies requesting assistance or information when a parolee was involved in a hostage situation. We therefore established procedures so that these requests could be met in a timely and effective manner.

1. Make available to the agency, either on the telephone or in person, the officer most familiar with the hostage-taker and the site of the hostage situation. Very often the hostage-taker will have requested that a specific person, usually his or her own supervising officer, be sent to the scene.

2. If dispatched to the scene, the officer should take with him or her the following information: an up-to-date photo of the offender; a summary of the offender's prior record, particularly as it relates to violence; any psychiatric history or summary and the name of the therapist if known; and names and telephone numbers of significant people in the offender's life (such as family members, friends and clergy). Someone in the office, usually the supervisor, should be designated as a contact person and should remain in touch with the officer at the scene in the event additional information or instructions are needed. The officer sent to the scene should report to the commanding officer of the hostage management team and follow his or her instructions.

Because you may be sent to assist a hostage management team, it is a good idea to learn about these teams' general organizational structure. While there are some variations among hostage management teams, the following structure is fairly typical.

1. Inner perimeter. This the immediate area of containment. No one is allowed inside this area who is not a member of the team.

2. Outer perimeter. This is a secondary control area surrounding the inner perimeter. Vehicles are diverted from this area to avoid impeding operations. No one is allowed inside this perimeter without the authorization of the commanding officer.

3. Command center. This is where the commanding officer and the negotiations team usually are located. In some cases, the negotiations team may be in a separate area closer to the hostage location. The command center is a secure location out of the hostage-taker's clear line of vision.

4. Commanding officer. This refers to the person who is in command at the scene. This person is of command rank but not necessarily the highest ranking person on the scene. This individual is responsible for deploying personnel and equipment, making all tactical decisions and commanding the negotiations team.

5. Containment team. This is a specially trained tactical squad within the inner perimeter. Team members also will serve as the assault squad if necessary. This team includes several sharpshooters with scoped rifles.

6. Key negotiations team members. Normally, there are two specially trained individuals who have direct and ongoing contact with the hostage-taker. They are responsible for all negotiations. They are the only individuals who can decide to permit others (such as the officer dispatched to the scene) to speak with the hostage-taker or hostage.

Concluding a Hostage Situation

Hostage situations usually are terminated in one of four ways. The following list goes from most common to least common:

1. Negotiations are successful and the hostage or hostages are freed. A hostage-taker may give up as the result of a combination of fatigue, diminished dedication to a cause, the effects of the Stockholm Syndrome, persuasion by the negotiators or others, or recognition of the futility of his or her action. This is by far the most frequent occurrence.

2. Escape of the hostage.

3. Assault on the hostage scene, with or without injuries or death.

4. Suicide by the hostage-taker, with or without death or injury to the hostage.

While certainly not a frequent occurrence, probation and parole officers have in the past been taken hostage and held against their will for periods of time ranging from just minutes. to several hours. The nature of their jobs--making unannounced home calls to convicted offenders who may be engaging in unlawful activities--places them in a very high-risk category.

Fortunately, there is now a considerable body of knowledge about these situations, including how to behave should an individual become a hostage. Further, the available data clearly shows that if certain behavioral principles are followed, the chances of surviving such an ordeal are significantly enhanced. This is particularly the case for the type of hostage situation in which an officer is most likely to find himself or herself.

Because hostage situations are rare, the tendency is to overlook or ignore them in agency policy, procedures and training. This can be a terrible mistake, not only in terms of officer safety, but in potential civil liability. In that regard, hostage situations are much like weapons use. While they are very low frequency events, they nevertheless demand ongoing attention and training.

This article reflects how one department dealt with this issue. It is by no means the only way, nor is it necessarily the best way to do so. Rather, it is intended to generate a greater interest in the subject and to encourage probation and parole agencies to develop procedures and training for managing this potentially dangerous type of situation.


Crisis Intervention. 1974. Field staff training course. LETRA. Campbell, Calif. Emergency Preparedness. 1977. Institutional staff training course. LETRA. Campbell, Calif.

Albert G. Smith retired from the California Department of Corrections in 1990 after more than 30 years of service, including 17 as administrator of staff training for the Parole and Community Services Division. He is a frequent contributor to Corrections Today.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Smith, Albert G.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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