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Role-play training for negotiators in diverse environments.

Negotiations in the new millennium present significant challenges for crisis intervention teams throughout America. The multitude of violent incidents that take place in previously unusual venues, such as schools in Columbine, Colorado, and the recent random shootings in the Washington, D.C. area, confirm that the United States has entered an increasingly complex and difficult era. These "new-age offenders" (1) possess sophisticated weaponry and a willingness to harm innocent people in areas previously considered sacrosanct.


Hostage negotiators must train for these new challenges. For a long time, experts in the field have felt that negotiators can enhance their communication abilities through training "as a way of improving their negotiation skills" and by providing members "with a structured opportunity to practice their new skills to enhance confidence." (2) Further, practicing strategies and risk assessments using actual case studies can prove extremely helpful. (3) By using locations previously unfamiliar to team members and tactical units, commanders may decrease the anxiety associated with a particular environment while also role-playing in a realistic setting.


The Suffolk County, New York, Police Department is attempting to address potential incidents by training in a variety of locations and venues to understand and respond more quickly and effectively to a hostage or barricade incident. Suffolk County's police hostage negotiation team began in 1976 with a small group of detectives trained in the concepts and theories by the early pioneers in this field.

The Suffolk hostage negotiation team (HNT) presently has 24 members and responds to incidents in the 5 western townships that encompass the Suffolk County Police District. All members are either detectives or detective supervisors and serve in various capacities within the investigative commands, including general services, arson, rackets, narcotics, and other specialized units. The team has responsibility for areas within the police district, as well as for the remaining eastern town-ships stretching to Montauk Point on the south fork of Long Island and Orient Point on the north fork. All totaled, these combined areas have over 1.4 million residents and encompass more than 911 square miles.

The unit has evolved and expanded over the years with increased training conducted by the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU) and local training via its New York office. To maintain, broaden, and develop the necessary skills, the team conducts training exercises approximately every other month. Currently, all members of the team receive, at a minimum, a 1-week training school conducted by members of the FBI's New York office. Some members also have attended a crisis negotiation course at the FBI Academy. During both of these schools, members take part in class-room instruction, as well as exercises designed to simulate actual barricade or hostage events.

Further, the team has trained jointly in the past with neighboring departments, which proves beneficial as an information-sharing event, as well as a cost-effective way to reduce training expenses. The tactical, technical, and emergency services units, as well as the Special Investigations Bureau (SIB), work closely with the HNT providing logistical and electronic support for training exercises.


Proper planning is a key element to the success of training in varying settings. HNT supervisors meet with representatives of the various facilities, arranging a suitable location for negotiations, observation, and presence of communication equipment and ensuring separation and privacy from actual activities taking place. Each training location presents a different environment; therefore, supervisors should address potential obstacles at the location and what types of incidents already have occurred there. For example, because the Suffolk hostage team members used a training building framed in steel, unexpectedly, their police radios did not function. To access equipment, the team requests blueprints of potential buildings to determine the location of heating, cooling, and communication systems. Consultation with officials at the proposed site enable HNT supervisors to design and implement a realistic role-play scenario based on the possible threat environment unique to that location.

Role-play scripts and scenarios are designed to provide the best and most realistic training within the limitations of time and personnel available. Tactical officers from the emergency services unit (ESU) use their tools and refine their procedures in a simulated crisis environment. Further, these exercises help members evaluate candidates for positions on the team. Prospective members participate in structured role-plays and are examined for their ability to "handle stress, think rationally, make decisions, and work as a team member." (4) In these environments, candidates are evaluated, as well as given the chance to decide if this activity is what they ultimately want to do on a regular basis.


The team consistently has sought locations that could become potential hostage situation sites. These locations have been limited only by the imagination of those who plan them. In 1998, the team executed a realistic hostage incident in a building that previously had been a local bank branch but now was slated for demolition. In the summer of 2001, and in response to various school shootings nationwide, HNT and ESU conducted a full-scale exercise in a local high school using the facility during the summer when it was not used for classes. In addition to the realism of using an actual school, the exercise gave education officials and police an opportunity to examine how an actual incident might develop. They encountered such difficulties as the inaccessibility of floor plans for tactical personnel and limitations on radio contact within the building. They evaluated and addressed these problems in advance so that in the event of an actual incident, they already would have resolved or minimized such difficulties.

Other locations used for role-play exercises have included the local jail and the Suffolk County Correctional Center, where team members and corrections officers assigned to the facility staged a possible hostage scenario in an actual secure prison environment. The sheriff's emergency response team and tactical personnel assigned to the facility worked closely with negotiators in the command post to ensure that communication and the flow of information was available to members making critical decisions during the exercise.

Other venues for training exercises for the team included a large medical facility at a local Veterans Affairs medical center where radioactive material for medical treatment was on site. Additionally, this location had an outpatient base of persons with emotional and mental disabilities. The team also conducted reality-based exercises in a state university dormitory and a local municipal park. In each of these locations, negotiators and tactical personnel interacted with the employees and security forces who worked there and had knowledge of the facility's operations.

When circumstances forced team members to negotiate face-to-face on a number of occasions, they realized that they needed to conduct practical exercises that simulated such a difficult task. Some of the exercises following this discovery encompassed extensive face-to-face negotiations. Working in this virtual environment makes it less stressful on the negotiators when an actual incident occurs.


Command staff and team members long have recognized the benefits of such training contributing to their success in negotiations. For example, in 2001, the Suffolk County HNT handled 32 incidents, most of which involved barricaded subjects, and their rate of successful resolution without a violent conclusion was over 95 percent. Further, in 2002, 34 hostage or barricaded subject incidents occurred, and all of these also were resolved successfully. The reason for this success is at least partially due to continuous and various training.


Today, crisis negotiators face unprecedented challenges. Role-plays offer them opportunities to improve communication skills, practice strategies, and increase their chances of success. Experience with the Suffolk County, New York, police hostage negotiation team has proven that continued and varied training benefits both law enforcement and the communities it serves. Representatives from each of the locations have expressed strong positive reaction to the exercises and have requested additional ones in the future. Negotiators and tactical personnel have become more familiar with the particular locations and their potential problems. By expanding such training, the department hopes to be prepared for the unexpected and often unique situations that negotiators may encounter.


(1) The author uses this term to identify offenders with little or no previous contact with law enforcement and who are willing to commit suicide or homicide to carry out their missions.

(2) Arthur Slatkin, "Enhancing Negotiator Training: Therapeutic Communication," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 1996, 1-6.

(3) Chuck Regini, "Crisis Negotiation Teams: Selection and Training," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2002, 1-5.

(4) Michael McMains and Wayman C. Mullins, Crisis Negotiations: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections 2d ed. (Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Company, 2001), 441.

By James R. Maher, M.S., M.P.A.

Detective Lieutenant Maher serves with the Suffolk County, New York, Police Department and is the commanding officer of its hostage negotiation team.
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Title Annotation:Police Practice
Author:Maher, James R.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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