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Certification for Hostage Negotiator

In a time when the law enforcement community is so concerned about certifications, it is hard to believe that hostage negotiating does not require certification. We must maintain certifications in everything from driving to the use of deadly physical force.

Lieutenant Jack Cambria, Commanding Officer of the NYPD’s Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT), had to appear in court to testify regarding a hostage situation that his team had handled. He was questioned about his expertise in the field of hostage negotiation. Lieutenant Cambria has a long and distinguished career in the NYPD, which includes 12 years in the Emergency Service Unit both as a police officer and sergeant, and has also served as the Commanding Officer of the HNT since 2001. After he articulated his vast experience and training, he was accepted as qualified to testify.

Some negotiators who come from busy places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a number of other cities could probably withstand the cross-examination scrutiny, but what about the rest? How many police officers who serve as negotiators could get on the stand and articulate both training and experience?

As for experience, there is no way negotiators from all points of the country can get significant amounts of real life experience. As a close substitute, both new and veteran negotiators alike are encouraged to volunteer some of their time to a crisis hotline. This will not only give them some real negotiating experience, but will also enable them to serve their community and possibly even 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 Lieutenant Frank Bolz Jr. trained the first NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team in 1973. Lieutenant Bolz and Detective Harvey Scloshberg, PhD 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 is simple. Find good detectives who know and use street psychology on a daily basis in their interviewing techniques.

Should negotiators have a degree in psychology? It is not mandatory for negotiators to have a degree in psychology. However, it is mandatory for a negotiator to have the proper personality, determination, drive, wellrounded life experience, and of course, structured training.

To become a hostage negotiator, you first need to become a law enforcement or corrections officer in a department that has negotiators. Then you must pay your dues by becoming a good, hard working officer who likes people and cherishes the idea of saving lives without expecting anything extra for doing it. Once this has been accomplished, you must apply for the position. If accepted, you should get formal negotiator training as soon as possible. This training and practice must be continual.

You also need to accept the fact that in relationship to other law enforcement incidents, negotiation incidents are not common. Your department may go for the longest time without an incident. Then, when youleast expect it, ‘bada boom” as we say in New York, you have a full blown multihour hostage situation.

There are a number of negotiation trainers out there who go very heavy into psychology, spending hours and sometimes days on having their students memorize the different mental disorders and how to recognize them. However, while the instructors who do this mean well, one cannot help but question the actual value of this to the officers they are training.

Let’s take a look at this from a streetwise approach. Do you really care that a person who is holding three people hostage was locked in a closet by his mother when he was twelve and forced to wear high heels and stockings? The intelligence of knowing that he has a bad relationship with his mother has limited value. For that matter, will a trained psychologist be able to accurately diagnose this person under these most dangerous conditions?

The most any psychologist can do is listen to the responses the negotiator is receiving and make suggestions: “He sounds like he may be…and you might want to try...” A trained psychologist needs to get continuous feedback, allow the subject to vent, and then try to get the subject to a place where he 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 is holding 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 in order to diffuse the situation.

Only when the situation has calmed down and the subject is in custody can the psychologist take over and work on the problem in long drawn out sessions. Many police officers of all ranks have confided 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 asubject under these conditions in such a short time span and under a hostile environment?

To be sure, a psychologist at the scene of a tense negotiation could be a valuable resource. I also believe that negotiator training should be streetwise based. Trainers should encourage negotiators to use the skills they have developed over the years and the life-experiences they have gained as police officers.

Officers train for the position of negotiator everyday of their lives. Some excel at it while others barely get by. Training should be geared to help the negotiator continue to develop these skills. A good instructor should promote the unique personality of each person, rather than stifle this individuality.

For the first time, a Hostage Negotiator Certification Training course has been developed by Hugh McGowan, Jim Alsup, Director of the Public Agency Training Council, and Dominick Misino. To initiate the Hostage Negotiator Certification Training, we have assembled a cadre of instructors whose individual experiences are unparalleled.

All of the instructors are veteran street cops first and 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 without fear of contradiction that street officers will receive the best possible training available anywhere.

The course consists of three phases. Phases I and II are given either 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 a little psychology. Phase I also consists of team building and discusses how a small agency with only one or two negotiators can still utilize the team concept.

Phase II is the hands-on portion where the students are broken up into teams of five. They use the team structure to practice the skills discussed in Phase I. Each team gets a chance to negotiate using a crisis phone, a through-the-door dialogue, and a face-to-face negotiation. 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. Misino teaches the Phase I and Phase II courses.

The brand new Phase III and final part of the certification has been designed to give the students a broad view of the ins and outs of the negotiation experience. Phase III is only given as a five day, 40 hour class and is taught by five instructors. Lieutenant Hugh McGowan teaches Day One. Hugh gives a unique perspective on the concept of hostage negotiating. Hugh commanded the NYPD’s HNT for 13 years and was considered to be among the most experienced negotiation team commanders in the country, even before he earned his PhD.

On Day Two, the morning session is taught by Former Captain Jack Ryan of the Boston Police. Jack is a lawyer who teaches all of the law classes for the Public Agency Training Council. Jack will share his research and case law from the perspective of the law enforcement community’s ability to deploy microphones, video, or recording devices into a subject’s location without his knowledge.

Retired Chief Gary Barney will teach the afternoon 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 30 years and brings a wealth of knowledge to the course.

In the morning session of Day Three, former Captain Frank McClure will cover negotiating within a jail environment. Frank was a member of the Atlanta Police for over 30 years and served as the Commanding Officer of that HNT for a number of years.

Detective Cameron Shihab will teach the afternoon session of Day Three. Cameron currently works for the Cobb County, GA Sheriffs Department. Cameron is of Iranian decent and will be teaching a class on dealing with Middle Eastern cultures. Cameron has lectured numerous federal and local agencies. In the trying times ahead of all of us, the better prepared we are, the better we will be able to save lives. Misino will be coteaching with both Frank and Cameron on Day Three.

Day Four will start the critiquing period of the certification. For the first two hours of Day Four, Misino will conduct a review of lesions learned and then Frank, Cameron, and Misino will be supervising role-plays and then critiquing each student. Every student will assume the position of primary negotiator and will be critiqued on his performance. The critiquing 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.

On Day Five, the critiquing process will be finished and a written test will be administered. All of the questions will be based on the lessons taught in Phase I, II, and III. When the critiquing process is completed, the three instructors will review the results. If any student is rated as “needs improvement” or “does not meet standards,” he will be given a second chance with a different person critiquing and a different role player. The results will then be final and recorded.

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 and Phase II classes. As far as the Phase III class goes, the jury is out on that one because it is brand new. The comments will be coming in after the first class is conducted. If the number of students registering for the class is any indication of the popularity to come it is evident we have a hit and a better training vehicle on our hands.

Dominick Misino is a 22 year veteran of the New York City Police Department. During his career with the NYPD, he served in the Special Operations Division for 18 years. He can be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2005

Rating : 9.9

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