Sep 01, 2010

Crisis negotiator Mitchell Hammer takes your questions about the hostage situation at the Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.

Hammer, an adviser in several international hostage incidents and an analyst of the Unabomber's letters, will discuss the psychology and procedures at work in a hostage situation and what next steps the police could take.

What steps will the police take to try and end this peacefully? What kinds of things will they say?

What the police have to do is to identify what is the core issue that's driving this individual to take the extreme this individual is taking.  We know that he's disgruntled and probably feels very frustrated because of his past protest at Discovery.  In other words he's got a history of protesting there.

It's likely that he feels a sense of being the victim, not been treated fairly.  While he has a list of demands this does not mean that his primary issue is to get those substantive demands met.  Yes, he has those demands but this might not be what's driving his behavior.  It may be extreme emotional upset.  It may be an effort to restore a sense of face, in other words he may see himself as a crusader or  a representative of a group and his action may be directed to restoring his face or his own self-image.

Based on your experience, what do you think is currently being discussed between the police and the hostage-taker?

I  think it's a combination of relationship development by the negotiator to build trust.  For example, asking if he's alright, if he's hungry, if there's anything that can be done for him right now.  Second, to find out the condition of the hostages and to again identify what the driving issue is, what the core issue is that's most important to him.   His past behavior has been protest behavior but what he is doing now is not a protest.  If you ask me what my major concern would be is,  is this individual suicidal?  Allegedly or supposedly he has sold two properties in Maui to fund his protests.  One indiccation of an oncoming suicide is people getting rid of significant items in their lives.

Does a negotiator usually assure the hostage-taker that his demands will be met, no matter how unlikely that is to actually happen (a helicopter, etc.?)

No.  The negotiator needs to be honest with the hostage-taker.  If, for example, the hostage taker says I want to have the Discovery Channel send a document signed by the president of the U.S. to deliver a certain kind of programming ...  You don't say yes to something that you couldn't deliver on.   What you want to do is build trust with the hostage-taker. 

How does the intense glare of media and social network programs affect a hostage negotiation?

Yes it does.  It reduces the amount of control that the police are able to exert over the messages that the hostage taker receives.  You want the hostage taker to be as dependent on the connection to the negotiator as possible.  When the hostage taker can twitter, e-mail, look at what's going on in the media, the hostage-taker is both sending and receiving information that is sometimes competitive to what the negotiator is trying to do.

The second thing is that TV coverage always increases the risk that tactical advantage can be compromised.  TV coverage may show, for example, the location of some SWAT team members which makes it easier for the hostage taker to find them and shoot them.

It looks like the suspect in this case has a history of mental illness. How does one negotiate with someone who might not have it all together mentally?

The safe model that I developed shows through research and practice that by identifying the driving issue of the hostage taker whether he is mentally ill or not is the most effective strategy for resolving these incidents.  Negotiation strategies are largely similar whether the hostage-taker has a mental illness or not.

Based on your experience, how long do you think it will take to rescue the hostages and subdue the suspect?

Before a tactical rescue attempt is undertaken they have to be sure whether he has a bomb or not. Until that 's deterimined a realistic tactical rescue plan will be more difficult to implement successfully.

In a situation like this, what is the main priority of the police on the scene? Is their first goal to arrange the release of the hostages, get the guy to surrender or what?

The first objective is to contain the situation so that it doesn't become potentially a more dangerous crisis.  Once contained the second objective is to initiatiate negotiation and gather intelligence.  For example, who the hostage taker is, his mental history, weapons, etc.

Aside from this particular story, what are some of the psychological profiles of people who engage in such crimes? To us, it shows they haven't thoroughly thought the situation through, yet they presumably are thinking something totally different than what most others think. What tends to be the thinking of someone who does this?

Psychological profiles are unreliable and not particularly helpful in developing negotiating strategy in hostage-taking situations.  If they feel that their cause is righteous they can delude themselves into feeling like they can achieve some result with it. 
Again, my concern is if he is suicidal that the demands are what he is talking about but the behavior is driven by emotional distress.

And it's that emotional distress that the negotiator will need to focus on.

It looks like there's been a list of his demands published on his Web site (now taken down) that have to do with outlandish requests for Discovery to change their programming.  What exactly are negotiators telling this guy if these really are his demands?

He may issue substantive demands but the issue that is most pressing for him may be face issues, emotional distress, rather than the substantive demand.

What can hostages (in this situation or in any other hostage situation) do to protect themselves?

What hostages need to do is become as much of a fly on the wall as possible.  Don't aggravate the hostage taker.  If it's possible, share some personal information so that you can humanize yourself to the hostage taker. Share personal information that would help the hostage taker empathize with you.  The three things that hostages should do:  be a fly on the wall.  Second, try to establish rapport with the hostage taker by sharing personal information about yourself.  Three, don't over-identify with the hostage taker or his situation because that can lead to what we know as the Stockholm Syndrome.

It appears as if Montgomery County's critical incidence response team has contained the situation and is engaged in productive negotiations at this point.

This concludes the discussion with Dr. Hammer.

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Mitchell Hammer
Mitchell Hammer is a professor emeritus of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University and a founder of Hammer Consulting.
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