Citizens Police Academy: SWAT and hostage negotiations

imagesOur last full session of the Hatboro and Horsham Citizens Police Academy was held on April 8.  The topics were Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) squads and the skillful discipline of hostage negotiation.

The SWAT concept was born out of a range of incidents that occurred in the late 1960s.  Incidents like the University of Texas clock tower sniper and the riots that followed the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. dramatically highlighted the need for teams of law enforcement officers trained specifically in more skillful and specific methods of resolving complex crises.

The clock tower sniper shootings occurred over just an 80-minutes,16 people were killed, 32 wounded in a systematic attack launched from a strategically difficult to suppress firing position.  It wasn’t resolved until three police officers took matters into their own hands.  Accompanied by a civilian, they arrived on the balcony hiding the sniper’s 27 stories above the university mall.

These officers had no specific tactical training for the event or anything similar to what present day SWAT team members receive.  They had no special weapons, using their normal service weapons, a rifle and shotgun.  They were successful primarily because the civilian accidentally fired the rifle he was carrying, which distracted Charles Whitman, the U.S. Marine-trained sniper, as two officers approached his sniper’s nest from the other direction.

The evening started with a demo room incursion by members of the Eastern Montgomery County SWAT.

Eastern Montgomery County SWAT (EMCSWAT) was formed in 1989 and currently holds responsibility for the communities of Hatboro, Horsham, Rockledge, Upper Moreland, Lower Moreland, Bryn Athyn and Jenkintown.  There are plans to incorporate the SWAT teams and areas of responsibility for Abington and Cheltenham with EMCSWAT to form Montgomery County SWAT East.

Some statistics on SWAT activity:

  • 17,000 police departments in the U.S.
  • 1200 tactical SWAT teams
  • Only 49 SWAT teams are “full-time”, dedicated fully to SWAT assignments
    • usually located in large metropolitan areas (Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, etc.)
  • 1999 study showed 566 SWAT incidents nationwide
    • 520 were resolved without shots fired
    • 368 wanted criminals or suspects apprehended
  • In the Eastern Montgomery County area, 90% of SWAT assignments are for serving warrants or to resolve barricade situations (taking of hostages or refusal to surrender within a structure)
  • EMCSWAT averages 1 assignment per month, and has had just ONE INCIDENT where shots were fired!

All SWAT operations consist of the following responsibilities:

  • Perimeter: Outer perimeter manned by uniformed patrol, inner perimeter by SWAT team members
    • Inner perimeter: containment of immediate hostile environment, relay close-in intelligence to Command, ready to control or neutralize threat in any attempt to escape containment or in hostile action.
  • 5021bb06d6caa.imageNegotiator: Sole contact with person-of-interest (POI).  Works to calm subject and control situation.  Relies on available intelligence to decipher situation looking for a “hook” that will appeal to the subject and resolve the standoff.  Stationed away from immediate scene.
    • Assistant Negotiator writes all communications down; monitors progress; reminds Negotiator of pertinent information
  •  Sniper and Observer:  Occupies high ground and provides cover to other responders
    • Average SWAT sniper shot distance: 60 yards
  •  Entry team:  Responsible for entry with a plan should situation warrant
  • Emergency Action Team:  Prepares for “hot” entry without a plan should situation suddenly change requiring quick entry action.
  • Intelligence Unit:  Looks to develop information (the hook) on the POI that can be used to de-escalate situation and elicit surrender
  • Command:  Manages the overall operation; ensures negotiators get what they need; responsible for overall safety

Controls:

  • Pennsylvania prohibits negotiators from recording Negotiator-POI communications unless a warrant is obtained.
  • All potential SWAT incidents are evaluated BEFORE SWAT in authorized to act.  Instrument is a one page chart/questionnaire used to summarize the hostile situation, scored on a weighted scale
    • 0-14:  no SWAT action required
    • 14-20:  requires consult with on-scene commander to determine SWAT appropriateness
    • 20 <:  SWAT action required

Qualifications and training:

  • Minimum two years of service in police duties
  • Rookie school:  40 hours training, usually off-site (e.g. FBI school, Quantico, VA)
  • Regular shooting qualifications: must shoot at 90% proficiency
  • Two scheduled 12-hour training days per month, attendance at one required
  • Annual trips to Ft. Indiantown Gap or Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst where building mockups are available

9607035417_35acb0e8a0_bThe most interesting insight was the expression of what a successful SWAT intervention consists:  no shooting, no assault, no injuries, and the peaceful resolution of the immediate situation.  Another interesting perspective was the answer to the question often asked these days about the “militarization” of police departments.  The point was straightforward and one with which it is hard to argue.  The most successful SWAT operations occur when the POI sees scores of cops, some dressed in a full complement military gear.  They see the vast array of equipment and perhaps the sounds of a helicopter overhead.  And they decide the most reasonable course of action is to walk out of the building – empty-handed – to be taken into custody safely.

Shock and awe might be the cop’s best friend!

The second half of the session addressed hostage and standoff negotiations, where the first choice of law enforcement is – once again – the peaceful resolution of the most easily inflamed situations.  The presentation was given by retiring Detective Dave Bussenger, a former negotiator who stepped aside to ensure experienced negotiators were developed before he left the force to retire.

download-41Bussenger’s presentation, rich in personal experience and the insight gained through years of being the #1 Negotiator, made you want to pay close attention.  His most surprising tidbit was his belief that the movie Dog Day Afternoon (Al Pacino, John Cazale) was perhaps the best portrayal of what an actual negotiation situation is really like.

Detective Bussenger confided that what drove him to be successful in his negotiations was to consider the consequences of failure … the lives affected on both sides if a subject could not be talked out peaceably.  He allowed that one of the most important skills he had as a negotiator was the ability to understand what a subject was feeling and experiencing during a standoff.

He allowed that the BEST thing he could hear from a barricaded criminal was a set of demands, no matter how bizarre or impractical.  The reason?  It indicated that the  ensnared individual WANTED to live because they had a plan for surviving.

The worst scenarios were those where the individual had hostages trapped with him that he knew intimately (spouses, parents, siblings, friends) yet made no demands for resolving the standoff.  This characterized an expressive form of behavior that set a red flag for the negotiator.  Many are suffering from psychological issues like severe depression or chemical imbalances or inappropriate emotional responses.  These situations hold the greatest potential for suicide.

Bussenger listed the characteristics of a good negotiation:

  • Patience
  • Soothing voice
  • Finely tuned listening skills
  • Ability to leave emotion out
  • Conveying the message that the negotiator is there to help
Police+Seal+Off+CBD+Negotiators+Talk+Man+Building+WbNq4gtsjPGl

Negotiators with potential suicide victim

A successful negotiator insists from the very beginning that the subject must come out; he can never lie to the subject; never say “no”; and must be able to empathize with the subject’s perspective.  And in cases where suicide is a possibility, the negotiator must be able to stress the stark realities of taking such action versus the other positive options and outcomes available.

The first 15-45 minutes of any potential standoff situation is the most important.  In cases where mental instability is present the negotiator can never indulge in the subject’s hallucinations, less he set himself up to caught in a lie and destroying all trust.

Negotiating teams generally include 4-10 individuals.  The primary negotiator will conduct all direct contact with the POI.  A support negotiator takes note of all communications and assists the primary in tracking progress and keeping tabs on details.  In the meantime an Intelligence component of the group will speak to family and friends in an attempt to glean pertinent information and discover a “hook” which can be used to bring a standoff to a successful conclusion.

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