Hostage Negotiations Essay

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On April 8, 2013, the New York Police Department (NYPD) commemorated the 40th anniversary of the creation of its Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT). The NYPD is recognized as the first law enforcement agency in the United States to formally adopt the practice of hostage/crisis negotiation by forming the HNT within the Detective Bureau.

Since 1973 a majority of local, county, and state police departments in the United States adopted or adapted the NYPD plan for hostage recovery to fit the operational philosophy and resources of their jurisdiction. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, historically the lead federal law enforcement agency for many specialized activities, initiated hostage/crisis negotiation research and practice soon after the NYPD program was launched. Many agencies that do not have the resources to maintain their own team often enter into agreement with adjoining departments for a regional response scheme.

Negotiation does not automatically presuppose equality between parties but does recognize the relative strength or power of each side. Implied in the negotiation process is that each side has something that the other wants, that there is no better mutually acceptable solution immediately available, and that there is a willingness to communicate and to discuss and consider compromise. Hostage/crisis negotiation is a means to an end.

Negotiation is a transaction between two parties, representing themselves or others, which is designed to arrive at a mutually agreeable resolution. According to Ronald Crelinsten and Denis Szabo, “Hostage-taking is a very ancient form of criminal activity; it was even an accepted tool of diplomacy when used by legitimate authority.” Hostage-taking is defined by the United Nations as “the seizing or detaining and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain another person to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing any act as a condition for the release of the hostage.” R. R. Rogan et al. reported that “hostage takers act to create an extortionate transaction with the police.”

In a democracy police work by necessity focuses a great deal of attention on means as opposed to ends, which has an important impact on how the job is to be performed. In the United States policing agencies are among the small number of elements of government that may legitimately use force to accomplish their mission. Sociologist Egon Bittner noted that the police are a mechanism for the distribution of situationally justified force in society.

So, while prepared and justified to use force, a hostage/crisis negotiation position attempts resolution without immediately resorting to official violence. A range of options is available to the police when weighing the “means” and “ends” of their activity. Competent hostage recovery policy usually provides for the consideration of a number of alternative courses of action and discretionary decision making. Successful hostage negotiation is largely dependent on making the best judgment given the information available at a particular point in time. In fact, most police work involves the exercise of judgment or discretion.

Like theorems in geometry, there are a number of given characteristics present in most hostage negotiation situations. In addition to a threat to life, one common factor is that ethical concerns will be present. For example, as the editors of The Negotiator’s Fieldbook posit when introducing the chapter titled “The Ethics of Compromise,” “Does choosing to negotiate have moral implications?” Even though the chapter only tangentially notes police hostage negotiation, the issues raised are very much appropriate to the question: Should police negotiate compromise with armed and threatening individuals? In the “means to an end” orientation noted above, the answer is yes.

A second issue is raised in the Francis Burke article “Lying During Crisis Negotiations: A Costly Means to Expedient Resolution.” The author clearly states that negotiation without dishonesty is “the morally superior approach.” This author’s response to his position on lying is not as unequivocal. There are many levels of activity taking place simultaneously during the hostage event. It may be necessary to consider some, even many, levels of police deception in order to better assure the probability of a safe, nonlethal, outcome.

Bittner advances the concept that police are called upon to respond to a situation about which something must be done. It has been stated many times in the literature of policing that they are viewed as an immediately available resource in times of emergency and crisis. To rephrase Bittner: police are called upon to do something about which something must be done and no one else is ready, willing, or able to do it. In the past, the police were seldom properly prepared for their mission and in some cases operated in a confusing and conflicting legal arena.

One aspect of that legal arena is less confusing and not in variance with legal ethics since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Frazier v. Cupp (1969) affirmed the legality of deceptive police interrogation tactics. And again in Oregon v. Mathiason (1977) the court did not object to deception by the police during an investigative interview. Although police investigative interrogation and police hostage negotiation are not identical there has not been a published legal challenge to police utilizing deceptive practices during negotiations. It should be noted that occasionally defendants have raised Miranda issues once in custody for their hostage holding, but that legal argument has never been successful.

The main issue in considering the advisability of police deceptive practices during negotiations is the negative impact that premature discovery of the lying would have on the trust and rapport that the negotiator is attempting to establish, thereby further endangering the hostage(s). Another concern is the possibility of harmful precedent if the deceptive practice is revealed after the event.

In addition to considering if it is morally wrong to engage in hostage negotiation, or once involved in negotiation whether one should deceive hostage takers, a number of other ethical issues occasionally arise. Returning to the geometry-given analogy, it is almost a universal given that the media will respond to hostage-holding situations that they become aware of. The manner in which reporters, producers, and editors cover the story can have serious implications for the instant case and beyond. This challenge is potentially exacerbated by First Amendment issues that are important to a democratic way of life.

Somewhat akin to issues raised by media response and reporting is the presence of attorneys asserting representation for the hostage holder(s) or even the hostage(s) while the event is still in the crisis stage. And, if a lawyer is representing the law enforcement agency or level of government that the negotiator is employed by, an issue of following employer legal advice or direction is introduced.

Finally, one additional group may present particular concerns during an incident: psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health practitioners. Whether the therapist is guided by the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics for the psychiatrist or the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, or some other canon of ethical practice, the negotiator will do all that is possible to extract information that may be useful for the immediate saving of lives.

It has been noted that during or immediately after a police hostage negotiation event it sometimes seems easier to deal with the armed and threatening hostage holder than with the array of others that may respond and interject themselves into the process. The bottom line is that ethical issues abound and the primary issue for the police negotiator is to protect life.


  1. Bittner, Egon. “Florence Nightingale in Pursuit of Willie Sutton: A Theory of the Police.” In Classics of Criminology, Joseph E. Jacoby, Theresa A. Severance, and Alan S. Bruce, eds. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2012.
  2. Burke, Francis V. “Lying During Crisis Negotiations: A Costly Means to Expedient Resolution.” Criminal Justice Ethics, v.14/1 (1995).
  3. Crelinsten, Ronald D. and Denis Szabo. Hostage-Taking. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1979.
  4. Kuykendall, J. and R. R. Roberg. “Mapping Police Organizational Change.” Criminology, v.20/3 (1982).
  5. Louden, Robert J. “Hostage/Crisis Negotiation: An Exemplar of FBI and Local Law Enforcement Cooperation.” Law Enforcement Executive Forum, v.8/1 (2008).
  6. Rogan, R. G., M. R. Hammer, and C. R. Van Zandt. Dynamic Processes of Crisis Negotiation: Theory, Research and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger,
  7. Schneider, Andrea Kupfer and Christopher Honeyman, eds. The Negotiator’s Fieldbook: The Desk Reference for the Experienced Negotiator. Washington, DC: American Bar Association, 2006.

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