A Day With Hostage Negotiators

A Day With Hostage Negotiators

By Martin Michaels


Because everybody has bad days.

By Martin Michaels

Martin Michaels is the pen name of a police lieutenant in Silicon Valley whose specialty is hostage crisis intervention. 

One morning I went to coffee with a coworker and old friend. We talked about our families, retirement plans and the pranks we used to play on each other when we were younger cops and didn’t think about the examples we set. We reminisced about the time my friend jimmied our coworker’s locker open and replaced his uniform shirt with a notably smaller one and how we spent the next few days laughing as he questioned his baffling weight gain.

Our coffee break was interrupted by our radios blasting tandem alert signals. A teenage boy had just threatened to stab his mother at a local housing project. Back to work.

More information was broadcast over the radio as we headed that way. The boy was African-American, 6′2″ and 260 pounds. He had threatened to stab his mother with a large kitchen knife when she tried to make him go to school. 

I knew my team was solid. I had a crisis negotiator, many skilled officers and the right equipment and resources to handle this. 

As I came on the scene I found the mother fighting with one of the officers. The son had barricaded himself in the apartment, the open door blocked by furniture. I heard an officer calling to the teen, asking him to put the knife down and come outside. The team told me he had been holding the knife over his head and threatened to stab them.

The mother displayed symptoms of aggression and paranoia and was physically trying to stop the officers from entering the house to speak with her son, demanding they speak to him through her. I was able to eventually calm the mother down and she changed her story. Her son now never threatened her with a knife — he had only threatened to harm himself

Now dealing with two different stories, both involving a weapon and erratic behavior, I rushed to re-brief my sergeant and go over the plan of contact: “We will have a negotiator talk to the teen from behind a shield,” I said. “Under no circumstances are we going inside the apartment. We need to defuse the situation and treat this as a mental-health intervention case, not a crime.”

Although the plan was to keep distance, sending my team out to risk their lives is never an easy directive to give.  

My guys were good, kept their distance and stuck to the plan.

I spent a lot of time keeping the mother calm as her outbursts were enraging her son. She was full of anger, hate, distrust and disillusionment toward us and him. She repeatedly brought up how she was mistreated by the police almost 30 years ago, not understanding we were there now to help her — responding to her call. I explained to the mother that our goal was to defuse the situation with crisis intervention and keep her and her son safe. 

I went back to check on our negotiators. As I stood behind my sergeant, I heard the negotiator keeping the teen engaged, not allowing him to focus on his mother, what the negotiator had most likely identified as his “trigger.” Under most circumstances they’d talk about anything but what was bothering him. His favorite team. His favorite music. In the case of someone who had taken hostages, we’d talk them closer to the window, away from the hostages. And into sight for our sharpshooters.

As the highest ranking officer on the streets at the time, I was heavily burdened with the dangerous reality of this call. It was a “pass-fail.” My officers’ lives were at risk. If my tactical plan was wrong, if the distances were too close or too far away for effective negotiations, if the teen presented an immediate threat, if the mom’s screaming enraged her son to violence, he and/or one of our officers could die. Equally disheartening was the thought that a violent end could create a ground zero for angry riots and possibly more deaths.

After over an hour of negotiations, during which the negotiator calmly and persistently engaged the teen, it was clear: We were slowly getting through to him.

The teen dropped the large kitchen knife but continued to refuse to leave the apartment. The sergeant on scene suggested we move inside the apartment and past the barricades the teen had made before he changed his mind and picked the knife back up. I reminded him, “We aren’t going in; the teen is coming out. It’s too risky. If he has another knife or if he tries to pick up the knife as the team moves toward him, it could be catastrophic.” Accordingly, he made sure the officers kept their distance to avoid the confrontation.  

Eventually the teen slowly stepped out and was received by our main negotiator and the rest of the team. He was brought to a hospital for a mental-health evaluation, now that the situation was defused. There’d be no death and no riots on my watch that day. In the weeks and months that followed, the negotiator worked with the mother to get her son counseling. To spite the police, or maybe to save face, she refused to allow him any mental-health counseling.

But the key to keeping him alive that day? Patience, correct tactics and luck. Now? Back to business as usual.