By Bruce A. Wind, 10/95. Taken from the FBI's monthly magazine.

Officer Wind was a member of the Seattle, WA, Police Dept. Hostage Negotiations Team.

Incidents involving barricaded subjects, hostage takers, or persons threatening suicide are especially trying and stressful moments for law enforcement personnel. Officers first responding to the scene must quickly assess 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.
  • Work to resolve tense, often volatile standoffs without loss of life.

Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams must then 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 succeed, each component must clearly understand 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-related or other critical incidents.

The Function of Supervisors

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 an 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.

Types of 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.

The Negotiations Process

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.

Therefore, they should base their decisions on an understanding of the negotiations process and the many factors that affect it.

Untrained Personnel

A successful negotiations process requires a good foundation. Often, circumstances force the first responding officers to initiate some type of negotiation with the subject(s).

However, once line officers or first-line supervisors realize that an incident appears to be heading for something other than a prompt resolution, they should immediately terminate negotiations and call in trained negotiators.

Too many tragedies in communities across America demonstrate how negotiations should not be initiated. A bad start by well-intentioned but untrained personnel can have negative effects throughout the process. Simply put, personnel who are not trained negotiators should not negotiate.


A negotiator's most important ally in all situations is time. Field commanders should not rush anything unless the loss of life appears imminent. Although it may seem as if nothing is happening because a suspect is not negotiating, this is not so. During these quiet times, many things occur that will eventually lead to a peaceful resolution.

Negotiators refer to these quiet intervals as "dynamic inactivity." As long as time passes without any harm to persons involved, then negotiators are making progress. The passing of time works for the police in many ways and only means that a resolution is closer at hand. Field commanders should keep in mind that patience is a virtue.

The Negotiations Team

Generally, the negotiations team consists of at least three main negotiators. Each team member plays a vital role in the successful resolution of critical incidents.

The primary negotiator actually communicates with the subject. The secondary (or backup) negotiator assists the primary negotiator by offering advice, monitoring the negotiations, keeping notes, and ensuring that the primary negotiator sees and hears everything in the proper perspective. The intelligence negotiator interviews persons associated with the suspect to compile a criminal history and a history of mental illness and to gather other relevant information.

Often, an additional negotiator will act as the chief negotiator whose primary responsibility is to act as a buffer between command personnel and the negotiations team.

Invariably and understandably, field commanders want to offer their advice to the negotiations team. Whenever possible, suggestions should be routed to the negotiations team via the chief negotiator.

The Negotiations Area

Typically, the negotiations team sets up away from the rest of the activity and maintains communications with the command post via a liaison. In Seattle, a member of the Emergency Response Team generally monitors the negotiations and provides tactical intelligence to the arrest, entry, and perimeter teams.

Exclusive Police Negotiation

Often, well-meaning civilians offer to negotiate with subjects. Sometimes, these civilians insist that they be allowed to negotiate. A wide range of individuals, from parents, spouses, and lovers to friends, members of the clergy, attorneys, counselors, and mental health professionals, might offer to do the talking. As a general rule, direct civilian participation in negotiations is entirely unacceptable. The tactical negotiations process is a police operation.

When faced with these offers, field commanders should keep in mind that the individual now so willing to help might have played a large part in driving the subject over the edge. While these individuals might be a useful source of information, only in very rare circumstances should they be allowed to speak directly with subjects.

Instead, they should be escorted to the intelligence negotiator and kept well clear of the actual negotiations process.

Containment and Control

Basic police procedure dictates that any crisis incident be contained using both inner and outer perimeters established and maintained by the police. Critical incidents such as hostage takings, barricade situations, and suicide attempts must be contained prior to the start of negotiations. Mobile negotiations should not be attempted.

While the need for a secure inner perimeter is obvious, crisis incidents also require an emphasis on a well-controlled outer perimeter. When arriving at the scene of a hostage taking, barricade situation, or suicide intervention, negotiators often encounter a large crowd made up of bystanders, the press, and the subject's family members.

It is important that the subject not be given an audience to "play to." Negotiation cannot succeed if negotiators must compete with outside influences for the subject's attention.

Individuals with potentially helpful information about a subject should be secured in an area where they can provide details to the intelligence negotiator. Likewise, the press should be provided a designated gathering area away from the perimeter and be briefed regularly regarding the status of the negotiations process.

Field commanders should remember that reporters have a job to do. They will do that job, with or without the help of the police. It is far more preferable to provide them with the accurate information they need than to force them to gather it for themselves. The relationship need not be confrontational.

In Seattle, the police generally enjoy good relations with the on-scene press. During protracted incidents, supervisors should request the assistance of the department's media relations personnel to help deal with the press.

The highly unstable nature of these incidents also makes it imperative that an arrest team be prepared to take the subject(s) into custody at a moment's notice. In fact, the surrender phase represents the most critical stage in any negotiated incident. In some cases, surrender can occur very rapidly. Depending on the severity of the incident, the arrest team can be made up of patrol officers or members of specialized teams. Once the SWAT team sets up at a scene, it should assume this duty.

Control of Phone Lines

During a protracted crisis, it is essential that the police control the phone lines. Generally, one of the first actions negotiators take when arriving at an incident is to arrange with the telephone company to deny origination to telephones at the subject's disposal.

Once origination is denied, the subject's telephones will no longer get a dial tone. At the negotiators' request, the telephone company then establishes a new number that serves as a direct line between negotiators and the subject. Restricting telephone access in this way prohibits the subject from talking to family, friends, attorneys, and most importantly, the press. It also prevents the suspect from gathering intelligence about police maneuvers from associates.

The Throw Phone

When no telephone is accessible to the subject or the telephone has been disabled as a tactical move by SWAT, the police must reestablish a means of communication. Because of the potential danger posed to negotiators, face-to-face negotiations are not an acceptable option.

In these situations, the SWAT team often tactically delivers a "throw phone", which is a standard telephone linked to a hardline system connected to the hostage phone system. Because telephone delivery places members of the SWAT team in dangerous situations, it should be practiced regularly during joint negotiator-SWAT training exercises.

Controlling Utilities

In Seattle, control of the phone lines generally can be secured without supervisory approval. However, in many instances, the negotiations team might determine a need to control the electricity and water, as well. Only the on-scene commander can make the final decision to interrupt these services.

Negotiators will bring the specific reasons for disconnecting utilities to the attention of the on-scene commander. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Taking away a subject's ability to monitor the incident on television.
  • Darkening the environment to provide a tactical advantage for SWAT.
  • Eliminating comforts, such as toilet facilities.

Tactical teams also might call for disconnection of plumbing services to deny subjects the ability to neutralize chemical agents, as has occurred in several recent incidents in Seattle. For whatever reason, the denial (or resumption) of utilities provides negotiators with an effective bargaining tool.

Different perspectives exist concerning the appropriate time to deny subjects utility services. Some experts believe that utilities should be disconnected before negotiations begin. Others believe negotiators should save such steps for use as bargaining tools later. While this is a matter of individual agency policy, administrators should ensure that the department adopts well-established policy guidelines in this pivotal area.

Demands and Deadlines

It is preferable for field commanders to resist the tendency to monitor the negotiations process personally. Supervisors who monitor negotiations or hear demands, deadlines, and death threats related during briefings should not become overly concerned. They should remember that the negotiating team is trained to deal with such scenarios. When a subject demands "$1 million," the negotiators actually hear "a 6-pack of soda."

Likewise, if the on-scene commander hears a subject say, "If I don't get the car by 2:00, I'll kill a hostage," negotiators actually hear, "Good, now we are really negotiating." Remarkably few hostages have ever been harmed as a result of missed deadlines. Of course, negotiators take deadlines and demands very seriously. However, skilled negotiators generally can work around them and even make them work to law enforcement's advantage.

During an incident, a member of the negotiations team keeps the field commander informed of the negotiations. Commanders who find it absolutely necessary to monitor the negotiations need to inform the negotiations team, which should have the capability to wire a speaker to the command post to enable supervisors to listen to exchanges with the subject.

However, field commanders' decisions should be based on the law, departmental policy, and the need for preservation of life and property. They should not make decisions based on exchanges they overhear between subjects and negotiators. The decision-making ability of commanders who personally monitor the negotiations process may be affected by any number of factors that have little actual bearing on the situation.


Much of the insight into the minds of troubled subjects comes from the specialized psychological training that crisis negotiators receive. As part of their training, negotiators learn a great deal about personality types, personality disorders, and the psychological motivations of hostage takers, suicidal persons, and subjects who barricade themselves.

This training enables negotiators to manipulate a subject through their understanding of that person's state of mind. Accordingly, negotiators rely primarily on mental rather than physical tactics to resolve conflicts.


Each field commander with the Seattle Police Department carries a pocket-sized checklist of actions that must be performed during a negotiated crisis. The checklist assists on-scene commanders to accomplish in an orderly fashion the various tasks required during a crisis. Other agencies might benefit from a similar checklist.

During times of extreme pressure, even the most prepared and composed professionals might not always remember to do everything at the right time. A checklist can prove invaluable in assisting supervisors to keep tense situations under control.


Agencies should conduct debriefings after the resolution of any crisis incident. Whenever possible, these debriefings should take place immediately following an incident, when details are still fresh in the participants' minds.

The debriefing should focus on how the various units handled their roles during the incident. Each component must be represented, and officers should feel free to offer criticism — both positive and negative. However, debriefings of this type should not be confused with or conducted in place of critical incident stress debriefings. Both serve valuable but distinct purposes.


Despite moves toward proactive policing methodologies, law enforcement remains an inherently reactive profession. When violent or troubled subjects create a crisis, they force the police to react to a situation in which the offenders already hold many of the cards. The press and the public judge the police by how well they respond to such situations.

Generally, concerns for hostage and officer safety in addition to the well-being of often mentally disturbed subjects dictate that the police respond at the lowest force level possible.

Therefore, on-scene commanders should be prepared to supervise a negotiated settlement. The negotiations process can be tedious, complex, and even confusing. The better field commanders understand the many factors that affect it, the more likely that negotiators will get the support necessary to resolve critical incidents peacefully.


Agencies interested in receiving a copy of the checklist developed by the Seattle Police Department should send a request on agency letterhead to the author in care of the Seattle Police Department, 610 Third Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98104-1886.