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Negotiation concepts for commanders.

From humble beginnings in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in 1972, the field of hostage negotiation has grown to impact significantly upon law enforcement's ability to peacefully resolve critical incidents. In 1973, building upon the NYPD's foundation, the FBI further developed the practical application of negotiation principles and embarked upon an unprecedented effort, which continues today, to instruct police officers worldwide on negotiation skills and practices. Today, police throughout the industrialized world, and increasingly in developing nations, recognize negotiation as one of the most important tools available to law enforcement to peacefully resolve crisis events. In fact, over the past 25 years, the application of negotiation skills has proven consistently to be one of the most successful and cost-effective innovations in all of law enforcement.

Today, negotiators respond not only to hostage incidents but also to barricades, suicides, domestic disputes, kidnappings, and other types of critical events where the application of their communication skills and specialized training can positively influence outcomes. The FBI, and many other police agencies, reflects this expanded application of negotiation skills by characterizing their trained practitioners as "crisis negotiators."

While police agencies recognize the importance of crisis negotiators, law enforcement administrators, the on-scene decision makers during a crisis, may not understand their negotiators' abilities and methods and may interfere or make decisions that impede the crisis team's efforts. For example, during the Waco standoff, on-scene managers received sound advice from the negotiation team but often did not follow that advice or appreciate the recommended approaches.(1)

To address these concerns, the FBI developed a block of instruction for prospective crisis decision makers. The training, Negotiation Concepts for Commanders, served as the template for the successful resolution of the 81-day Freemen siege in Jordan, Montana, in 1996, as well as the peaceful resolution by the Texas Rangers of the 7-day Republic of Texas siege at Fort Davis, Texas, in 1997. It provides commanders with an essential understanding of the important principles and concepts needed to effectively manage the negotiation process during a crisis event.


Types of Incidents

The FBI characterizes all critical events - regardless of the motive, mental health, or criminal history of the subject - as either hostage or nonhostage situations.(2) Understanding the difference between the two remains paramount to peacefully resolving such incidents and thus represents the bulk of the FBI's training for commanders.

Hostage Situations

During hostage situations, subjects hold another person or persons for the purpose of forcing the fulfillment of substantive demands upon a third party, usually law enforcement. Typically, subjects make direct or implied threats to harm hostages if their demands are not met. Substantive demands include things that subjects cannot obtain for themselves, such as money, escape, and political or social change.

Hostage takers demonstrate goal-oriented and purposeful behavior. Thus, they use hostages as leverage to force law enforcement to fulfill their demands. While the hostages remain at risk, the primary goal of hostage takers is not to harm the hostages. In fact, hostage takers realize that only through keeping the hostages alive can they hope to achieve their goals. They understand that if they harm the hostages, they will change the incident dynamics and increase the likelihood that the authorities will use force to resolve the incident. Therefore, it remains in the best interests of hostage takers to keep the hostages alive and avoid actions that might trigger a violent response from police.

Law enforcement negotiators have learned to handle hostage events by stalling for time, lowering subjects' expectations, and reversing their sense of empowerment and control. Negotiators buy time by using delay tactics and initiating give-and-take bargaining (making subjects work for everything they get). At the same time, the tactical team uses highly visible containment strategies to demonstrate to the subject that the police are willing and able to use force if necessary. Still, the police should never directly threaten to use force because doing so may cause subjects to resist further.

Hostage takers may initially feel in control and empowered, but as time passes, the negotiation team builds trust and rapport and convinces them that they will not accomplish their objectives and that they should surrender peacefully. Ultimately, hostage takers must decide whether to come out peacefully and live or to get injured or killed when the police inevitably take action against them. Fortunately, almost all hostage incidents are resolved peacefully as hostage takers' desire to live outweighs their need to have their demands met.

This process may take time, and the negotiation team must employ patience and understanding and use active listening skills(3) in an effort to thoughtfully communicate with the hostage taker, defuse the conflict, and work toward establishing a level of rapport that allows them to explore problem-solving options and progress to a nonviolent resolution. This approach enables police practitioners to de-escalate and defuse in a peaceful manner most volatile conflicts they encounter. This process enjoys an extremely high success rate in achieving surrenders without bloodshed.

Nonhostage Situations

In contrast to hostage situations, in nonhostage incidents, individuals act in an emotional, senseless, and often-self-destructive way. Unable to control their emotions in response to life's many stressors, they are motivated by anger, rage, frustration, hurt, confusion, or depression. They have no clear goals and often exhibit purposeless, self-defeating behavior. Such individuals have either no substantive or escape demands or totally unrealistic demands for which they would have no reasonable expectation of fulfillment. Disgruntled employees, jilted lovers, rejected spouses, aggrieved individuals, idealistic fanatics, individuals with mental illness, and others with unfulfilled aspirations who feel that they have been wronged by others or events fall into this broad category. Their displeasure at their circumstances places them in acute stress and disrupts their ability to function normally. Angry, confused, and frustrated, they may express their anger and vent their frustrations by undertaking actions that bring them into conflict with law enforcement.

During nonhostage situations, individuals barricade themselves or hold others against their will, not to gain leverage over police to achieve a specific goal but to express their anger over events or at the individual they hold. In such cases, the person being held technically is not a hostage, used to secure fulfillment of a demand, but a victim whom the subject contemplates harming. Subjects holding victims, with whom they typically have a prior relationship, usually have no substantive demands because they neither need nor want anything from the police. What they want is what they already have, the victim. In these cases, the subject typically will tell police, "Go away," "We don't need you or want you here," or "This is none of your business." The potential for homicide followed by suicide in many of these cases is very high. Indeed, when loss of life occurs during a crisis incident, it most often happens during a nonhostage event. Subjects are clearly in crisis, and the police must respond to them in a careful and thoughtful manner.

Crisis negotiation teams have learned that to effectively intervene in nonhostage incidents, they first and foremost must demonstrate patience and understanding. Negotiators buy time while being non-threatening and non-judgmental and avoiding all actions that may escalate the confrontation. Subjects frequently distrust police motives and manifest high levels of paranoia. They often exhibit hypervigilance and hypersensitivity to police movements and may overreact with violence to the slightest provocation. Thus, in contrast to hostage events, the police should handle nonhostage incidents using a low-profile containment scheme that is less confrontative and demonstrates peaceful intentions. This serves to avoid provoking undesirable responses from the subject.

By applying active listening skills, the negotiation team properly pursues a strategy that attempts to lower subjects' emotions, defuse anger, and return the subjects to more rational thinking. The negotiator works toward building trust and rapport by demonstrating understanding of and concern for subjects. Negotiators should specifically demonstrate through word and expression that they understand the issues that are important to or bother subjects (their stories) and how subjects respond to those issues (their feelings).(4) After establishing a trusting relationship, negotiators then can attempt to introduce nonviolent problem-solving alternatives that steer subjects toward a peaceful outcome. This approach has enabled the police to defuse even the most volatile incidents.

Frequently, subjects do not want to talk to police and resist repeated efforts to communicate. As frustrating as this can be, negotiation teams should continue to reach out to subjects and converse with them as though an actual dialogue were occurring. During this one-way contact, negotiators should reassure subjects and begin to convey positive themes, as though responding to their stated concerns. For example, acknowledging the subject's fear and providing reassurance that the police want to help can convince the subject to begin talking.

Moreover, early efforts to contact the subject remain vital and should not be unduly delayed. Many departments choose to avoid initiating contact until they have the tactical team in place. While understandable, this procedure may overlook the value of "verbal containment." Subjects are less likely to commit violence against their victims while they are conversing with negotiators. Therefore, even if the tactical team has not set up completely, negotiation dialogue can begin to lower tension during the initial, generally most dangerous, period of any event.

Police should exercise restraint and avoid manipulation of anxiety techniques throughout the incident. Breaking windows, tossing rocks on the roof, or playing loud music only serves to reinforce the subjects' suspicions about law enforcement's intentions. While such efforts may prove acceptable with a lone barricaded individual, they never should be employed when the subject holds a hostage or victim. Law enforcement cannot predict with certainty whether the subject will respond violently to such actions or not. Law enforcement decision makers should beware of the "action imperative," the pressure that compels police departments to take any action to get things going. Frequently doing nothing different or staying the course is proper and appropriate; restraint does not equate to weakness.

In a nonhostage situation, thoughtful demonstrations of peaceful intentions by the authorities actually may help build rapport and enhance dialogue. In other words, giving a man threatening his girlfriend a cigarette, without expecting anything in return, can demonstrate good intentions and may be appropriate. Because nonhostage events are crisis interventions, not bargaining interactions, limited acts of unilateral giving by authorities will not empower subjects. These subjects do not want their demands met; rather they want to vent their anger and are considering harming their victims. Therefore, anything law enforcement can do to calm subjects down and establish trust may benefit efforts to build rapport and thereby influence behavior. This contrasts with hostage takers, who should not be given anything without the police getting something in return.

Everyone wants respect, even the most troubled or seemingly undeserving individual. Law enforcement should properly view negotiations as a process through which they can influence subjects, steering them away from violence and toward a peaceful surrender. The most common mistake negotiators make is trying to hurry the process by rushing into problem solving before establishing a measure of trust. This is typified by negotiators who ceaselessly press subjects to surrender before they are ready. Negotiators should not drone the mantra, "When are you coming out?" Only after they have established rapport and earned the right to do so can negotiators begin to influence the subject by suggesting resolution options.

In short, the negotiation team, the on-scene commander, and the tactical team must understand and appreciate whether they face a hostage incident, in which subjects use hostages as leverage to achieve their demands, or a nonhostage incident, in which subjects direct their aggression against themselves or a victim. After determining which of these two basic types of situations they face, on-scene decision makers must carefully consider all contemplated actions.

Decision-making Considerations

Today, all police actions in any crisis come under strict scrutiny. Decision makers understand that the choices they make during any incident become subject to a court of law and to the court of public opinion and must be considered carefully. The FBI recommends using the three-part Action Criteria: 1) is the contemplated action necessary? 2) is the contemplated action risk-effective? and 3) is the contemplated action acceptable?(5)

Decision makers also should prepare to answer why they took action when they did, what conditions changed from earlier that caused them to take action, and whether they fully explored and attempted to implement less risky alternatives first. Loss of life is most likely to occur during police tactical intervention. Therefore, before initiating any tactical action, decision makers must consider carefully the current threat to the hostages/victims, as well as the risks faced by their tactical officers.

If the threat to the victims is believed low, then high-risk tactical actions are inadvisable and difficult to defend. If the threat to the victims is higher, then risk-effective tactical action is easier to defend and should at least be considered. Finally, if the threat to the victims is very high, then high-risk tactical action may be necessary; commanders may have no choice.

Any loss of life, even to the subject, will result in the close examination of the actions of the police agency. Critics will want proof that the threat to hostages increased and that the police exhausted less risky alternatives prior to taking action. At the same time, members of the public will accept the consequences of high-risk action only if they believe with certainty that taking no action at all surely would have resulted in harm to the hostages/victims.

Unified Strategy

Anecdotal information provided by crisis personnel nationwide reflects that crisis managers frequently fail to sufficiently coordinate the efforts of their negotiators and tactical personnel. Indeed, the on-scene decision maker must bring all of the key component leaders together to ensure that all parties understand the type of situation and its accompanying dynamics and understand and support the proposed resolution strategy. All police elements must convey a consistent theme.

Moreover, negotiations represent not only what occurs over the telephone but also every action the police take and the subject interprets.(6) Thus, the negotiator's words and tactical actions must convey the same message. Demonstrations of force by the tactical team can undermine non-threatening, purposeful negotiations. If negotiators are attempting to de-escalate tensions while the tactical perimeter team's actions appear threatening, then efforts to gain rapport and build trust with the subject will be thwarted.

Component coordination also should involve public information officers. Crisis managers always should assume that the subject has access to radio or television and can view what the police say to the media, as well as what the media report. Thus, police press officers must clear all prepared statements not only with the on-scene commander but with the negotiation team, as well. Doing so will help prevent harmful or regrettable statements that may agitate the subject or in some way inhibit the trust and rapport the negotiation team is attempting to establish.

Negotiations and Tactics: A Balanced Approach

Experience has shown that too many police departments continue to employ a linear approach to crisis resolution. First they try to talk subjects out (ask them), then they use force to take them out (make them). This approach remains typical among action-oriented police or military establishments not used to having others dictate their actions. Police officers learn to identify a problem, solve it, and move on to the next one. As a result, they become frustrated when the actions of a criminal or disturbed individual become the controlling force in determining the outcome of an incident. While the police have learned to use negotiations to buy time, muster resources, gain intelligence, and prepare for action, they do not always understand that tactics do not simply follow failed negotiations. Rather, commanders must appreciate that the proper use of tactics encourages negotiation.

Synchronizing negotiations and tactics in a parallel fashion can achieve maximum effect. The negotiator should contrast for the subject the benefits of reaching agreement through negotiation with the risks of disagreement leading to tactical intervention,(7) preferably by an incremental display of power during the negotiation process without actually using it. Still, an appropriate limited display of tactical power is not the same as an overtly threatening use of that power. The goal remains to bring subjects to the table, not to their knees.

Negotiation Team Structure

A single individual cannot conduct the negotiation process. Rather, a team structure represents the best approach to proper negotiations. An effective negotiation team requires a minimum of three individuals: a primary negotiator, a coach, and a team leader. Many incidents require additional team members to maintain situation boards,(8) collect and disseminate intelligence information, interview released victims or friends/family of the subject, serve as mental health consultants, and act as tactical liaisons. Major incidents can demand an even larger negotiation team performing other functions and working in shifts. The negotiation team needs to operate in a quiet area - which the FBI refers to as the Negotiation Operations Center, or NOC - that remains free from intrusion and interference, sits separate yet adjacent to the command post, and contains sufficient space to accommodate the personnel required.

Along with the tactical team leader, the negotiation coordinator should serve as one of the on-scene commander's principal advisors and have almost continual interaction with the on-scene commander. These three key individuals must interact in a positive and effective manner to ensure a uniform understanding of the subject's behavior and motives and to promote a unified strategy aimed at risk-effectively resolving the incident.

Many negotiation teams nationwide have learned the value of having a tactical team representative stationed within the NOC. Negotiators represent the ears of the operations; the tactical team, the eyes. Together, they work to exchange intelligence; compare subjects' words with their actions; coordinate deliveries, releases, and surrenders; and prepare for and implement tactical intervention. Making deliveries, receiving released victims, and handling surrenders require particularly close coordination between the negotiation team and the tactical team. These critical activities, more than any other actions, tend to become problematic due to a lack of coordination and uniform understanding of the specifics of the agreement and the timing required to carry them out. For example, if the subject expects a box of food to be placed in a certain area, and for whatever reason, the tactical team puts it in another area, it can result in the subject's feeling misled or set up. Such a simple misunderstanding can result in an erosion of trust and disrupt efforts to establish and maintain rapport.

Indicators of Negotiation Progress

Commanders most frequently ask negotiation coordinators two questions: 1 ) how long will the incident last? and 2) is the team making progress? The answers to these questions are neither simple nor straightforward. First, the situation will last as long as it lasts and not a moment less. It is nearly impossible to predict with certainty the duration of an incident. The answer to the second question lies in a number of indicators of either progress or high risk.

The following indicators signify progress and generally mean that current negotiation initiatives should continue. Specifically, since negotiations have begun,

* no additional deaths or injuries have resulted,

* the subject has reduced threats and is using less violent language,

* the subject's emotions have lowered,

* the subject has exhibited increased rationality in speech and action,

* deadlines have passed,

* the subject has become increasingly willing to bargain,

* the subject has lowered demands,

* the subject has released a hostage,

* the negotiator has built a rapport with the subject,

* the subject has made positive statements about the welfare of the hostage/victim, and/or

* the subject has asked about the consequences of surrendering.

Conversely, the negotiation coordinator may cite an increased risk to the victims due to the absence of some of the indicators of progress or continued clear threats or actual injury to the victim(s); no substantive demands; no escape demands; or verbal clues of suicidal intentions. These and other risk factors indicate that the potential for further loss of life remains high.(9) When all signs point to the inability of negotiation to prevent the subject from harming hostages/victims, the team can consider tactical intervention options aimed at rescuing hostages/victims before the subject can take action to harm them.

This is easier said than done. Risk-effective tactical intervention options require detailed planning and flawless execution. Experience has demonstrated repeatedly that when the police feel compelled to initiate tactical action, the prognosis for loss of life greatly increases. During high-risk scenarios, tactical action might best be described as "high risk, high gain," meaning that the risk to all parties (subject, victim, and police) is usually very high, albeit necessary, but the potential gain in the safe release of victims is compelling. To take no action probably seals the fate of the victims. On-scene commanders must weigh carefully the risks versus the gains, ensuring that they authorized the action, with negotiation team concurrence, out of necessity, not because the police had the ability to do it, grew fatigued, or became impatient.

Tactical Role of the Negotiator

Once the on-scene commander authorizes tactical intervention, the negotiation team can and should assume a proactive tactical support role, softening up subjects and making them more vulnerable to tactical action. The negotiation team accomplishes this by setting up deliveries in a predictable pattern for subsequent tactical exploitation, making concessions that cause subjects to lower their guard, occupying subjects on the phone during the assault (thus specifically locating them), identifying the leader or most violent subject for tactical focus, getting subjects to vacate the stronghold and thereby become more accessible to tactical action, and explaining away any tactical movements seen or heard by the subject.

On-scene commanders frequently overlook the negotiator's role during tactical interventions. They often fear that negotiators, armed with the knowledge of impending tactical action, will somehow betray this information to the subject over the phone. Yet, the FBI's review of thousands of cases has not identified a single incident in which this has happened. By contrast, many examples exist of negotiators, who, after being made aware of tactical plans, have masked or covered tactical movement that might have otherwise compromised the operation.

In a recent case, the tactical team, believing the subject was asleep, made an early morning entry into a hostage stronghold without telling the negotiation team. What might have happened if negotiation team members had decided to call into the crisis site to talk to the subject? Had they done so, they unwittingly would have awakened the subject, who then might have become aware of the ongoing police entry and decided to resist violently. Alternately, the subject might have awakened, heard the tactical team approaching, and phoned the negotiation team seeking an explanation. Without any knowledge of the plan, the negotiation team would have been unprepared to offer a believable cover story explaining the noise or might have hung up to find out what was going on instead of purposefully keeping the subject occupied on the phone.

The Team View of Success

Negotiation team members are law enforcement officers, trained to work toward resolving crisis situations in the most risk-effective way possible. Tactical intervention may, indeed, represent the best solution; it does not equate to negotiation failure. Statistically, negotiations successfully resolve most incidents. Moreover, even if the subject does not surrender peacefully, negotiations nonetheless succeed by stabilizing the incident through verbal containment; buying time to gather intelligence, staff, equipment, and other resources; and allowing the tactical team to identify the subject's vulnerabilities and practice its planned entry.


The art of hostage negotiation has come a long way, and crisis negotiators have developed the skills and knowledge they need to peacefully resolve even the most volatile incidents. The successful resolution of such incidents usually rests in understanding the dynamics of different situations, and on-scene commanders must understand the type of critical incident they face in order to identify the appropriate law enforcement strategy. Whether a hostage situation in which the subject aims to force authorities to fulfill certain demands or a nonhostage situation in which the subject has no clear goals or substantive demands and expresses anger, rage, or frustration in a senseless or self-destructive way, negotiation remains a vital tool to successfully resolve the crisis.

Whether a hostage or nonhostage event, commanders should understand that negotiation represents a process designed to demonstrate empathy, establish rapport, and, finally, influence the subject to avoid further violence and surrender peacefully. Negotiations buy the time necessary to gather important intelligence; assemble personnel, resources, and equipment at the scene; and allow the tactical team to prepare for risk-effective intervention, if necessary.

Negotiations cannot work without proper tactical containment, and tactical intervention rarely succeeds without the help of the negotiation team to buy time or set up the subject, lowering the potential risk to tactical officers. The incremental, coordinated use of tactics and negotiation effectively brings subjects to the bargaining table. Still, the need for tactical intervention does not mean that the negotiation team failed. It means that the subject was not reasonable and did not make the proper decision to surrender. If tactical intervention proves necessary, both the tactical and negotiation components need to work hand in glove to plan and then implement the agreed-upon strategy.

Along with the tactical team leader, the negotiation coordinator should stay in almost continual contact with the on-scene commander to ensure that all actions are coordinated and further the agreed-upon strategy. The negotiation coordinator should advise the commander of the indicators of progress as well as the indicators of high risk. This input enables the commander to consider carefully the full range of resolution options available.

Before making critical decisions, commanders should use the Action Criteria to determine if the action is necessary, risk-effective, and acceptable. In addition, commanders must be prepared to answer why they decided to take action, what conditions changed from earlier, and whether they first exhausted less risky alternatives.

Above all, commanders should adopt a philosophy that views tactical intervention as the least desirable alternative, one to be taken only when no other choice exists. The police will have to show that they demonstrated patience and restraint, that they carefully assessed and understood the subject's behavior and motivation, and that they felt compelled to use force only to save lives and not simply because they had the ability. Such a policy will result in continued support from an increasingly demanding citizenry that will continue to scrutinize any controversial police action.

Commanders always should remember that to maintain the support from the public they serve, they must demonstrate professionalism in handling high-profile hostage, barricade, and suicide incidents. Understanding the dynamics underlying such incidents will assist commanders in making the critical decisions needed to resolve them.


1 Edward S.G. Dennis, Jr., "Evaluation of the Handling of the Branch Davidian Standoff in Waco, Texas, by the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation," report to the deputy attorney general, October 8, 1993.

2 Based on records from the FBI's Hostage Barricade System (HOBAS) database, 86 percent of all incidents can be classified as nonhostage, while only 14 percent are hostage incidents; HOBAS Statistical Report of Incidents, March 23, 1998.

3 See Gary W. Noesner, M.Ed., and Mike Webster, Ed.D, "Crisis Intervention: Using Active Listening Skills in Negotiations, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1997, 13-19.

4 Mike Webster, M. Ed., Centurion Consulting Services, British Columbia, Canada, lecture at the FBI Academy, 1996.

5 G. Dwayne Fuselier, Clinton R.Van Zandt, and Frederick J. Lanceley, "Hostage/Barricade Incidents: High-risk Factors and the Action Criteria," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 1991, 7-12.

6 Frederick J. Lanceley, FBI (retired), lecture at the FBI Academy, 1993.

7 Supra note 4.

8 See James E. Duffy, "Situation Boards," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 1997, 17-19.

9 Supra note 5.

Types of Crisis Incidents



* Demonstrate goal-oriented and purposeful behavior

* Hold hostages to fulfill substantive demands (money, escape, change)

Law Enforcement Strategies:

* Employ highly visible containment

* Use delay tactics

* Make subjects work for everything

* Lower subjects' expectations

* Contrast benefits of surrender with risk of resistance

* Offer safe surrender with dignity



* Act in emotional, senseless, and often self-destructive ways

* Hold victims with intent to harm

* Have no substantive demands or totally unrealistic ones

Law Enforcement Strategies:

* Employ low-profile containment scheme * Demonstrate patience and understanding

* Give a little without getting in return

* Apply active listening skills to lower emotion, defuse anger, and establish rapport

* Provide nonviolent resolution options

Law Enforcement Strategies for All Incidents

* Apply active listening skills to build rapport

* Exercise patience and restraint

* Use force only when necessary and risk-effective

* Coordinate all actions in a team approach

Active Listening Skills

Minimal Encouragements: Use verbal responses or replies, e.g., "O.K."; "I see."

Paraphrasing: Repeat the subject's message back in the negotiator's own words to convey listening and understanding.

Emotion Labeling: Label the subject's feeling to gain insight into the subject's attitude and behavior as the subject agrees or disagrees.

Mirroring: Repeat the last words or main idea of the subject's message to build rapport.

Open-ended Questions: Ask questions that require more than a yes-or-no or one-word response to get the subject to talk; avoid "why" questions, which may imply interrogation.

I Messages: Express feelings when the subject behaves in a certain way or says certain things, e.g., "I feel frustrated that we haven't come to an agreement,"to humanize the negotiator.

Effective Pauses: Use silence to encourage the subject to talk and calm overly emotional subjects.

Source: Gary W. Noesner, M.Ed., and Mike Webster, Ed.D., "Crisis Intervention: Using Active Listening Skills in Negotiations," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1997, 16-18.
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Author:Noesner, Gary W.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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