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Hostage Negotiator Certification. Necessary or Not?

Dominick Misino/Hugh McGowan

Presently the law enforcement community is very concerned about certifications. Agencies must insure that their officers maintain certification in everything from defensive driving to use of deadly physical force. Yet, these same agencies do not require certification for their hostage/crisis negotiating teams. Or perhaps they are under the mistaken belief that a certificate of attendance at an FBI Basic Negotiation Course will suffice or is the same thing as certification. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I recently had a conversation with Lt. Jack Cambria, Commanding Officer of the NYPD’s Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT) and he related the following story to me. Lt. Cambria had to appear in court to testify regarding a hostage situation that his team handled. After the ritual of swearing in, Lt Cambria was questioned as to his expertise in the field of hostage negotiation. Lt. Cambria has a long and distinguished career in the NYPD, which includes 12 years in the Emergency Service Unit, both as a police officer, sergeant and lieutenant, and has served as the Commanding Officer of the HNT since 2001. He articulated his experience and training and was qualified to testify. Let me add that Lt. Cambria and I served in the Emergency Service Unit together as police officers and I have the highest respect and admiration for him. Lt. Hugh McGowan, (now Doctor Hugh, Ph.D.) the former HNT Commanding Officer, chose Lt. Cambria to take his place upon his retirement, also served in ESU and shares this sentiment. For a week or so after that conversation I keep replaying it in my head. Something was nagging at me and finally I realized what it was. Some negotiators who come from busy places such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or a number of other cities could probably withstand the cross-examination scrutiny but what about the rest? How many officers from other jurisdictions could get on the stand and articulate extensive experience and ongoing training?

As to experience, there is no way we can help negotiators from all points of the country get real life negotiating experience and we most certainly are not going to encourage them to go out and initiate a situation just so they can. Lt. McGowan, Lt Cambria and I encourage new and veteran negotiators to volunteer some of their time on a crisis hotline. This will not only give them some real negotiating experience but they will also serve their community and most importantly possibly save a life.

Training, on the other hand is something that we can control, encourage and mandate. Hostage negotiation training throughout the country differs very little. Any differences usually involve team composition, callouts and command structure. The theories on negotiating with armed and unarmed subjects have remained pretty constant since Lt. Frank Bolz Jr. trained the first NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team in 1973. Lt. Bolz and Det.Harvey Scloshberg, Ph.D formulated the guidelines and theories, which have become the mainstay for negotiation training worldwide. The basis of negotiation training then and now in the NYPD was simple. Find good detectives who on a daily basis know and use “street psychology” in their interviewing techniques.

I am constantly asked the question “Should negotiators have a degree in psychology?” I get e-mails almost on a daily basis from kids in college saying, “I am a psychology major and I want to be a hostage negotiator. Can you give me some advice what courses should I take”? Let me answer the first question. “NO”! It is not mandatory for negotiators to have a degree in psychology. However, it is and should be mandatory for a negotiator to have the proper personality, determination, drive and a well-rounded life experience and of course, structured training. Now for the second question, I advise young people to definitely continue with their education and understand that the path to becoming a hostage negotiator is not an easy one. If you come from a 2-man department and you are second to the chief then you have a 50/50 chance of getting the job. To become a hostage negotiator a person first needs to become a law-enforcement or corrections officer in a department that has negotiators. Then you need to, as we call it “pay your dues” which basically means becoming a good hard working officer who likes people and cherishes the idea of saving lives and, I might add, not getting anything extra for doing it. Once you have accomplished that, you can apply for the position. If accepted you then need to get trained as soon as possible and then need to train and practice on a regular basis. You also need to accept the fact that in relationship to other law-enforcement incidents, negotiation incidents are not common. Your agency may go for the longest time without an situation but when you least expect it, ‘bada boom" as we say in New York, you have a full blown multi-hour hostage situation with real lives hanging in the balance.

There are a number of negotiation trainers who go very heavily into psychology, spending hours and sometimes days on having their students memorize the different mental disorders and how to recognize them. I know I am walking on dangerously thin ice here but “What the hell” I spent my career on that same piece of ice and I am still here alive and kicking. In many cases, the instructors who do this are well meaning but I question the value to the officers they are training. I question the value simply because I have had many psychologists in my classes over the years and I encouraged them to share their thoughts on whether they believed this type of training was necessary or not? Let’s look at this from a streetwise approach. Do you or I really care that a person who is holding 3 people hostage was locked in a closet by his mother when he was twelve and forced to wear high heels and stockings. Knowing that his relationship with his mother may not be good can be of help, I agree but the rest has limited value. Now I ask you, can you or I or for that matter a trained psychologist be able to accurately diagnose this person under these most dangerous conditions in such a short period of time? The psychologists I have spoken with say the most they or anyone could do would be to listen to the responses the negotiator is receiving and make suggestions such as … he sounds like he may be …and you may want to try…. A trained psychologist needs to get continuous feed back, allowing the subject to vent and then possibly get them to a place where the subject feels comfortable about opening up. The difference is that when a psychologist sits with a patient it is under controlled circumstances and not while the individual holds a gun to a hostage’s head. When time is of the essence and lives are at stake police negotiators must rely heavily on their ability to use the “street psychology” they have developed and the training they have received to diffuse the situation. Only when the situation is calmed down and the subject is in custody can the psychologist take over and work on the problem in long drawn out sessions to gain trust and find a way to help the subject deal with life and its problems, past, present and future. I have had many police officers of all ranks confide in me that sitting through hours or days of psychology training only made them unsure and uncertain about being able to do the job. Why shouldn’t they feel this way when clinical psychologists say it is extremely hard for them to diagnose a subject under these conditions in such a short time span and under a hostile environment?

I want to make sure that I am perfectly clear about this. I am not saying that a psychologist present on the scene could be a valuable resource. I believe the good ones could be of great value. I also believe that negotiator training should be streetwise based. Training should encourage the negotiator to use the skills they have developed over the years. Officers train for the position of negotiator ever day of their lives. Some excel at it and others barely get by. Training should be geared to help the negotiator continue to develop those skills.

I’ll share a lesson from my class with you. On the first day of the class I make a mark on easel pad or dry erase board and I call it the city name I am teaching in. Let’s say the name I use is San Antonio, Texas. Then I make a second mark on the easel about 18 inches above it and I will label it Dallas, Texas. I then ask one of the students what would be the fastest and most direct way to get from San Antonio to Dallas. They correctly reply a straight line. Then I say to another student I want you to meet me in Dallas but you can take the scenic route. I then draw an arc about 2 inches from the straight line to the right from San Antonio to Dallas. Then I say to another student “Meet me in Dallas and take a scenic route but not the same route as the other student”. This time I draw another arc about 2 inches away from center but to the left. Now, to the rest of the class I say “I want all of you to meet me in Dallas and I want all of you to take the route you are most comfortable with”. Now I draw about 4 or 5 arcs on each side of the existing arcs. The picture on the board should resemble a pumpkin (Ok, sometimes it looks like an onion). I am not noted for my artistic ability. Now the question to the class is: “Which route is the right one?” The answer is ALL. This is because all I asked the class as individual’s to do was just get to Dallas. I now rename San Antonio the beginning of a hostage situation and rename Dallas the end of a hostage situation. The lesson is rather simple. Look at these arcs not as driving routes but rather as personalities. Each person has his or her own unique personality and rather than stifle this individuality a good instructor should promote it. The first student I asked to go to Dallas chose the most direct route since their personality is comfortable with being a little more direct and forward. The second student chose a more scenic, roundabout route because their personality is more comfortable with taking the road to the right. The next student also took scenic route but not the same one as the previous student. The rest of the class each took the route that was comfortable with their own personality. Now I ask the same question “Which personality is the correct personality to get the job done?” The answer is still the same ALL. Dominick’s theory on PUMPKINOLOGY or ONIONOLOGY.

These are the kind of training methods that make students more comfortable and confident that they can do the job. The sampling of things that I discussed here are part of a first time ever Hostage Negotiator Certification Training course which has been developed by Hugh McGowan, Jim Alsup, Director of the Public Agency Training Council, and Dominick J. Misino. The course consists of three Phases with Phase I and II given as two three day sessions or as one five day session consisting of both Phase I and Phase II. Phase I covers the basics of negotiation from history to talk tactics and I might add, a touch of psychology. Phase I also consist of team building and we discuss how a small agency with only one or two negotiators can still utilize the team concept. Phase II is the hands-on portion and the students are broken up into teams of five. They use the team structure to practice the skills we discussed in Phase I. Each team gets a chance to negotiate using a crisis phone and “through-the-door” dialogue. We even do a face-to-face negotiation in front of the class. The role-plays are structured to get the best possible learning experience. This training is geared to give the students some realistic hands on practice, in the Phase I and the Phase II courses.

The new Phase III and final part of the certification has been designed to give the students a broad view of the in and outs of the negotiation experience. Phase III is only given as a five day 35 hr class. There are five instructors for this class.

On the first day students will have the pleasure of listening to retired Detective Pete King, Philadelphia Bomb Squad. Pete shares his extensive knowledge of dealing with Middle Eastern cultures and suicide bombers. Pete has lectured to numerous law-enforcement agencies including federal, state and local agencies on the topic.

Retired Chief Gary Barney will teach the morning session of day two. Gary will discuss how to deal with the mentally ill and what we should and should not do. Gary served in the law-enforcement community for over thirty years and brings a wealth of knowledge to the course.

On day three former Sgt. Frank McClure will instruct in the afternoon session and he will cover negotiating within a jail environment. Frank was a member of the Atlanta, Georgia PD for over thirty years and served as the Commanding Officer of that HNT for a number of years.

Retired Lt. Hugh McGowan, Ph.D. NYPD Hostage Team teaches on day three. Hugh gives a unique perspective on the concept of hostage negotiating. For thirteen years Hugh commanded the NYPD’s HNT and he is considered to be the most experienced HNT commander in the country even before he earned his Ph.D. Hugh has been invited to speak to numerous agencies and has traveled overseas to other countries to share his expertise.

On day four we split the group in half. Group 1 will start their hands on testing period while group 2 attends a lecture by Larry Danaher. Before Larry P. Danaher retired he was the Commander of the Lafayette SWAT Team. He has consulted with Supervisors, Chiefs and Sheriff’s nationwide on SWAT issues and has been called upon to testify in State and Federal Court as an expert in Managing Special Operation Teams, SWAT Training, Selection of Personnel and Equipment, Barricade Operations, Force Options and Tactical Decision Making Issues. Larry has also trained Federal Response Teams, as well as, local and state SWAT teams in close quarter tactics. Many of his SWAT operations have been seen nationally. Larry has over 25 years of law enforcement experience and training. Larry shares his expertise in liability issues involving team building and agency responsibilities for training and funding.

On Day 5, a written test will be administered. There will not be any trick questions and all the questions will be based on the lessons taught in Phase I, II and III. The evaluation of the role plays will be done on uniform critique sheets and will be graded as meets standards, needs improvement or does not meet standards. There will NOT be a numeric grade attached to any part of the testing process. When the testing process is completed the three instructors will review the results. If any student was rated as needs improvement or does not meet standards they will be given a second chance with a different person critiquing and a different role player. The results will then be final and recorded. Once the written test is completed, a lecture will be given by Kevin Otto, owner of Enforcement Technologies Group Inc. Kevin’s lecture will be geared to providing up to date equipment information and not a sales pitch. Once all lectures are completed a hostage negotiator Certification Certificate will be presented by Hugh McGowan, Frank McClure and myself.

To initiate the Hostage Negotiator Certification Training we have assembled a cadre of instructors whose individual experience is unparalleled. All of the instructors are veteran street cops first and all have developed their skills through the belief that good street cops use good tactics. When we combine their education, experience and practical knowledge we can state that without fear of contradiction you as street officers will receive the best possible training available anywhere in this country to help you accomplish the goal of saving Lives.

For those of you who are looking for a little more unbiased opinion about the training classes you can go to and read the guest book. There are hundreds of entries and many comments about the Phase I, II and III classes.

Law-enforcement agencies are climbing onboard every day. We have had 5 phase 3 classes so far and the response has been outstanding. We continue to strive for the finest class we can possible provide. We have made some changes and adjustments to better our presentation. Our office receives calls every day from chiefs, sheriffs and training officers wanting to know the process for getting their officers certified.

Remember, negotiator certification is Liability insurance.

Now you need to ask yourselves Necessary or Not?

As always, take care and stay safe.

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