Military and Police

Preparing for the Day: How to Handle Being in a Hostage Situation

By T.B. Lefever:

One of the things I like most about my job is the training I receive.  Any officer, G.I., fire guy, medic, or prepper will tell you that being taught the tactics to save your own life and the lives of the people around you has a comforting effect.  Having a solid plan to navigate a worst case scenario is like Linus having a blanket or Sinatra holding his cocktail and a cigarette.  Never hit the stage without it.  I try to maintain a constant state of alertness no matter where I am.  You can be the nicest guy in the world and still have a plan to kill anyone in the room if you have to.  My blanket is to sit facing the entrance and exit, my cocktail is to know where my points of cover and concealment are, and my cigarette is to be aware of any weapons I might have at my disposal in the event that I’m confronted with a life or death situation such as an active shooter.  In the world we live in today, not letting yourself go completely into “code white”, cop-speak for a state of oblivion or carelessness, can be the difference between going home and going to sleep when the boogey man shows up.

We most commonly associate the active shooter suspect with an act of terrorism or senseless derangement.  The reality is an active shooter situation can grow from dysfunction rooted in just about anything to include workplace tension, gang culture, or domestic violence.  In the most dreaded cases, the shooter’s objective is to take as many live as they possibly can where the victims are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The tips shared in Get off the X! are invaluable because they force us to train our natural fight or flight response.  When shots are fired, it’s time to get out of dodge.  All bets are off.  There is no pleading for your life.  There is no negotiation. You must simply “Get off the X”.

The initial police response to an active shooter event will consist of beat officers converging on-scene with lights and sirens blaring to immediately move towards the threat.  Officers are trained to follow the sound of the gunshots and neutralize the threat with a secondary mission to treat the wounded and get them medical treatment.  The good news is that more and more officers are equipped with AR-15’s to match the firepower typically used in these types of attacks nowadays. The bad news is you will most likely still have to rely on yourself to keep those legs pumping and get out of the lion’s den on your own. Officers are trained to end the killing and will not stray from that mission to provide medical aid while shots are still ringing out and people are potentially being slaughtered.  So if the common sense solution to survive an active shooter event is to move immediately, what do you do when a gun is shoved in your face and the suspect tells you, “Move and I’ll kill you”?

Hostage situations are their own can of worms.  Beat officers will still be the first to show up on-scene, but the tactics of their response will be entirely different.  While you are hunkered down wondering what this person wants and if they’ll let you go, officers should be working their way through a chain of events to set themselves up for success.  Number one, they will contain the area by covering all entrances and exits.  Two, they will be controlling the crime scene by evacuating the surrounding area of bystanders and restricting the movement of personnel within so as to minimize the number of potential victim.  Three, first responders will begin communicating to each other any relevant intelligence that needs to be taken into account.  What can we see? What can we hear? Is anyone hurt? Four, they will be calling SWAT, the negotiating team, the bomb squad, etc. to take over the situation.  Contain, Control, Communicate, Call SWAT. These are the 4C’s that will determine whether a crisis event becomes a hostage situation or an active shooter.

Once SWAT shows up and takes tactical positioning, a team of negotiators will open a dialogue with the hostage taker(s).  While you are lying on the ground face down, huddled in a corner, or doing whatever you think hostages are made to do from watching Die Hard, you’ll be wondering, “What are they doing out there?” At this moment, you should be thinking about what you can do to survive.  Realize this. You are a hostage. You are not in control of anything at this point. Being a critic or attempting to display authority over your captor by giving unsolicited advice is a good way to earn you the number one spot in line as a sacrificial lamb if they begin to use leveraging tactics.  You should never attempt to escape or wage an attack against your hostage taker unless you are 100% sure of a successful outcome. Even then, pulling a Houdini or being a hero is inadvisable as a failed attempt could be catastrophic to you and your fellow hostages. Then there is the drama queen.  Sudden movements, excessive panic, and any behavior that could appear suspicious to the HT will put you on their radar.  Establishing yourself as a drama queen makes you an unnecessary stress factor, which the HT may eventually decide to balance out of the equation.  The key is to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.  Now look around you.  Observe the other hostages.  Is there a critic or hero in your midst? Do you see any possible Houdinis or drama queens? Can you determine if anyone is sick or in need of immediate medical attention? How about a leader amongst you beginning to emerge? Finally, look to see if a “Stockholm Syndrome” is being fostered between the HT and any of the hostages. It is important to understand what is going on with fellow captives and adopt the mindset that you are now a team with one goal: Survive.

Studying crisis situations has taught us that the initial hostage taking event and the surrender are the most critical phases.  The first half hour following the moment hostages are taken is an extremely high stress time for the HT, who is actually experiencing the same self-preserving fight or flight response that you are.  During this or any other high stress stage of the event, a hostage taker may refer to you and your group as dogs, pigs, trash, etc. in an attempt to dehumanize you. Take into consideration that the HT will have a much easier time killing you if they can rationalize that you are somehow subhuman.  If the HT engages you in conversation, be agreeable, submissive, and low key.  Then reinforce your position as a human being tactfully by talking about your family or something personal when given the opportunity.  Only when the hostage taker’s stress level stabilizes can the negotiations with police begin.  From that point on, time works in everyone’s favor.  The event unfolds like a roller coaster barreling towards the unfinished tracks police are trying to build as they go.  As a negotiator, you lay those tracks by saying the right things, keeping them talking, and buying more time.  All the while, you know that you may have to talk the HT into the scope of a SWAT sniper if there is no more material to build track with. As the roller coaster ride nears its end, it is decision time at the edge of the cliff.  The HT can either slam on the brakes and let the passengers off or they can send the whole car careening off of the tracks.

As you can see, the dynamics of the hostage situation are fluid.  You may find that flying under the radar is your best course of action until you are given an opportunity to humanize yourself or take on the role of a leader within your group to help others make it through.  Perhaps you will develop a strange rapport with your HT and find yourself in a position to help the incident reach a peaceful conclusion.  Take a moment every now and then to ask yourself, “What’s my blanket?” Then decide what cocktail you’ll have and pick a favorite brand of smokes. It could save your life.

T.B Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.

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