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April 3rd, 2009
05:10 PM ET

Tips from a hostage negotiator

Program Note: Tune in tonight for more on situation in Binghamton on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

The shootings and hostage situation took place at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, New York.

The shootings and hostage situation took place at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, New York.

Gabriel Falcon
AC360° Writer

How does a dangerous hostage standoff come to a peaceful end? One former FBI negotiator says it begins with hope.

“You focus on giving him a reason to live through this,” Byron Sage says of a suspect. “As soon as he starts to connect to that concept, he will realize he is responsible for any kind of actions taken against the hostages. What you are trying to do is…give him hope.”

Providing that hope often starts with a phone call. Sage, who was the Crisis Negotiation Program Manager with the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, says there are several options to persuade the gunman to answer. When responding to a hostage situation, law enforcement will “capture the lines,” a term used to describe how phone services going in and out of the target location are isolated or limited. By capturing the lines, the suspect can only talk to the police.

If the subject refuses to use a phone, one may be provided for him. Sage says a “throw or rescue phone” will be tossed through a doorway or window, giving the gunman the option of picking it up to talk. If that doesn’t work, the negotiator may turn to a public address system, like a bullhorn. But Sage believes it is not always effective. “Most PA systems are monotone,” he says. “When you are talking to someone, you want to convey thoughts and emotions, on a PA system, it doesn’t come across as very thoughtful. You sound very much like a robot.”

Once communications are established, and Sage has made it happen with notes and flashing lights, the negotiator will size up who he or she is dealing with. It could be a sociopath, an ex-convict, a religious fanatic, or someone that snapped. No matter the circumstances or the individual, Sage has advice for negotiators: “A negotiator never says yes, and he never says no. You’re a messenger with a level of authority, but you are not the absolute decision-maker.” Even if the demands are outrageous – a plane for example – the negotiator will tell the subject he or she is doing the best he to accommodate the hostage-taker.

The biggest factor to saving lives? Time.

The more the hours tick by, the greater the chance the hostages will be released “Try to get some passage of time,” Sage advises. It increases the possibility that the violence or threat of violence will be curtailed, and that rational thought enters the situation.


Filed under: Crime & Punishment • Gabe Falcon
soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. m

    Sociopaths by nature do not "feel" anything to include guilt, remorse, compassion, or anything towards others. They have no conscience so any sort of obligation towards society is non-existent. This means they could care less about laws. Do people really think if someone is in an emotional state of mind where they would even consider taking a life, they will be the least bit concerned about being in possession of a stolen gun, or getting caught buying one on the street?

    Gun control has failed at every level. Even the individual from Canada used the term "rarely happens", but it does happen. Look at Timothy McVie ?SP? Remember him and Oklahoma? People who are hell bent on killing will find a way. Arming people is not going to stop it either. Read the articles about the crime in Mexico, and claims the weapons are coming from the US. Laws haven't prevented drug lords from arming themselves. The fact still remains if someone wants a weapon, they will find one. There's no sure fire system for verifying someone purchasing one won't "snap" even if, at the time, they are a model citizen. Remember the BTK killer was a prominent member of the church. Damned if we do. Damned if we don't. People still deserve the right to defend themselves in their own homes, but at the end of the day, it's a personal choice.

    Face it. If you have a gun for home defense, you have to have ready access to it and be damn sure if you pull it out, you're mentally capable of using it otherwise it could be used against your family. At the same time you have to make sure kids can't get to it. There's also the issue of it being stolen. If it's secured to protect children and theft, then odds are you aren't going to have a good chance of getting it if your home is invaded in time to use it.

    The long and short is honest people owning guns isn't the problem, and people who commit these crimes could care less about obstacles/laws saying they can't.

    April 6, 2009 at 6:04 pm |
  2. Brian

    Criminals don't follow gun laws. How will more gun laws help? doh.

    April 5, 2009 at 11:59 pm |
  3. Patrick K

    Joy, could you please explain how the deranged shooters in Binghamton and at NIU got their guns, and why the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters carried guns to those schools?

    New York and Illinois have some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, and it is illegal to carry a weapon on school grounds.

    If gun control really worked, none of those shootings would have happened. Could it be that sociopaths and other criminals don't obey laws? Nah. That would be placing the blame on an individual, which doesn't fit with the kum-ba-yah crowd's belief that everyone is wonderful and that the world is one big happy flower garden. No. It must be the guns.

    April 3, 2009 at 10:36 pm |
  4. Chad

    A tense standoff is ended with multiple rounds to center mass to neutralize the threat. Somebody who performs a random spree shooting attack will not stop to have a chat about hope, life, or reason. That person has given up their right to a peaceful surrender and as long as they are shooting, they are a threat and must be dealt with. If a citizen in the center was armed with a weapon themselves, the number of victims could have possibly been minimized. It is a shame and people like the shooter give responsible firearms owners a bad name.

    April 3, 2009 at 10:12 pm |
  5. Nikki

    Boy, am I glad to be a Canadian. These things rarely happen where guns simply are not sold unless for very specific reasons. Shame on those who don't think this through and believe handing a "legally concealed gun" for the "innocent" is the proper way to handle things. As for criticizing the police, they aren't always my favourite, but they do still run in harm's way, to save strangers' lives. All you pompous, sitting-comfortably-in-your-sweats-at-the-computer critics...would you jump into a building with a raging, incoherent, gun-toting desperado? For the love of Pete, think before you talk/write how you would do better. Glass houses, people...glass houses...

    April 3, 2009 at 9:46 pm |
  6. Rick

    Hello Mr. Ken Blake: It's true that the pressures of modern day life push many people over the edge, but I really believe most of these flip-out cases would never happen if the perpetrators were unable to acquire weapons. How often do you hear of a deranged individual terrorizing a town or taking lives with a bungee cord or a potato peeler?

    April 3, 2009 at 9:21 pm |
  7. Dr. Reder

    Only the weak minded can think that laws will effect the criminals or insane. The bad guys will always find a weapon... gun, knife, or rock. A well armed, well trained, lawfull citizen can stop this situation long before the police have arrived.
    Gun laws only aid the criminals and tie the hands of the law abiding folk.

    April 3, 2009 at 9:06 pm |
  8. Chuck

    I agree fully with Mr.Towers. If perhaps one individual in that building had a permit to carry a concealed weapon and had been doing so this entire tragedy could have been adverted. The solution is not making the laws more stringent on obtaining small arms, the solution is punishing those who illegally sell arms to the wrong people. If you were to ban small arms completely the only people who would be armed would be those criminals. I have a permit to carry and I carry on a daily basis where permitted and I for one believe the more responsible citizens we have out there carrying the safer our country would be.

    April 3, 2009 at 8:42 pm |
  9. Mike

    Ken, it's not a politcal agenda to want to be able to save my own tail and the lives of my wife and children if we happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Joy, I lived in New York for several years. They have VERY tight gun laws, and yet lots of crime...much of which doesn't invove a gun as the primary weapon of choice. I am a CHL holder, and I carry wherever the law and my employer allow me to carry. I do this quietly, carefully, and in full respect of, and accordance with, the law. If others choose not to arm themselves, that's perfectly fine with me. But I deserve the right to do so. I also favor stricter laws for purchasing guns...I agree with background checks, mandatory training/licensing, and passing a timed practcal proficiency examination. Simply banning all guns just won't work, and there's plnty of evidence to support that.

    April 3, 2009 at 8:34 pm |
  10. think aboutit

    guns dont kill people,

    people kill people.

    April 3, 2009 at 8:14 pm |
  11. Ken Blake

    What do you guys do – sit around like vultures waiting for something terrible to happen so you can use it to advance your political agendas?

    It is both the individual and society in general that generate these kinds of incidents, and it is misguided to blame it on weapons of any kind.

    April 3, 2009 at 7:49 pm |
  12. A dude

    Why do these things always happen where other people aren't allowed to have weapons? The police are NEVER on time.

    April 3, 2009 at 7:42 pm |
  13. M. Towers

    I don't buy Joy's comment about the government being "laxed"(sic) with guns. I lived in Binghamton once, and they have some of the absolutely tightest gun control laws in the country. Even the cops couldn't get what they needed (I would bring it to them on trips to Houston). On the other hand, if just one of those people in the building had had a legal concealed handgun, as 37 states allow, maybe they could have stopped this obviously deranged, irrational killer. Certainly more gun laws would not have.

    April 3, 2009 at 7:42 pm |
  14. Mark Fitzsimmons

    SafetyBook bullet resistant books will save lives.....

    April 3, 2009 at 5:47 pm |
  15. Joy Marra

    The American government is extremely laxed with guns being sold to the general population. Whoever wants it can have it anytime. This is the main reason why deranged and psychotic people go around freely shooting scores of people like chickens. The government and society has to consider the fact that these weapons are for the sole purpose to take away lives. Something has to be done by the government in setting rigid laws against selling guns, otherwise, there would be more sensational shooting rampages as the Columbine, Virginia Tech, NIU, and the latest American Civic Center.

    April 3, 2009 at 5:47 pm |
  16. Annie Kate

    I always thought more time was not as good as less time – that the more time that went by without meeting the hostage taker's demands frustrated him/her and they would be more willing to sacrifice the hostages. Its good to know that this is not the case and that the hostage takers actually do calm down and think better of the situation.

    April 3, 2009 at 5:17 pm |