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Hostage Situations
By Wayne P. Anderson
Last edited: Wednesday, November 09, 2011
Posted: Wednesday, November 09, 2011

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This is a summation of what I learned about hostage situations as a consultant to law enforcement agencies.



Wayne Anderson



At one point in my career before we got real sophisticated about hostage situations I ran training for the local police department and was involved in several situations where I got to watch the process.  After retirement because I continue to teach in a Master's level Criminal Justice program I was invited to a week long FBI training program that brought me up to date at the time.  From reading the news I gather that much of what I learned is still valid.

I will discuss different types of people, who take hostages, but there will be some overlap, for example, an aggrieved spouse who has taken his wife hostage at her office may also be suicidal. Since hostage takers and barrier holders are almost exclusively men I will refer to them as he. The FBI makes a distinction between the two types. In the case of hostage takers they want something and will negotiate. Barrier takers often do not have anything they wish to bargain for. The WACO group and the Montana Freemen were in barrier situations.

An FBI study (Butler, Leitenberg & Fuselier, 1993) of 300 law enforcement agencies found that negotiated surrender was the most common resolution to both hostage (65%) and barricade (72%) incidents. The second most frequent ending was entry and arrest of the perpetrator by the SWAT team.

          SWAT team entry with one or more perpetrators killed accounted for 6% of hostage and 1% of barricade incidents. Four percent of the cases ended with the suicide of the perpetrator. Overall only 3% of hostage incidents involved a hostage being killed and only 5% resulted in a hostage being injured seriously enough to require hospitalization.

When people think of hostage situations they are more likely to think of a robbery gone wrong and the perpetrator taking hostages to ward off capture.   Fuselier (1984) from the FBI reports that in reality the most frequent hostage taker is a mentally disturbed individual who has emotional reasons for taking a hostage. The emotionally disturbed make up 85% of the situations that 48 law enforcement agencies studied in 1986.

In the discussion of types of hostage situations we have divided the emotional group into three sub-groups; spouses, angry ex or present employees and psychotic.


Types of hostage situations


            1. Cornered perpetrators. A bank robbery discovered and the bank surrounded by police is the usual scenario. The criminal has no way to escape and takes hostages in desperation. If the hostage negotiator can show him a way out of the dilemma without getting killed he will likely take it. Time works to the benefit of authorities in most all hostage situations but to a greater degree here.

This is the hostage situation which is most likely to result in the famous Stockholm Syndrome. The syndrome consists of negative feelings on the part of the hostages toward the authorities conducting the seize, positive feelings on the part of the hostage toward the hostage taker and positive feelings reciprocated by the hostage taker toward the hostage. Whether it develops depends upon a number of factors, the passage of time, close physical proximity to each other, no physical or verbal abuse of the hostages, and a mutual fear that the police could do something which might injure both of them. In this situation the hostages may aid the perpetrator and not obey instructions such as the order to "lie down" when the police enter the facility. The syndrome may work in the hostages favor because if the hostage taker has positive feelings toward them it reduces the likelihood that he will deliberately kill them.


            2. Suicidal personalities will sometimes take hostages.  The perpetrator is usually caught in a life crisis and can see no other way out except his death and perhaps the death of the hostages.  There a number of situations where this may occur and sometimes this happens so quickly that when the police arrive it is only to clean up the mess.  At other times, however, the police will be given an opportunity to negotiate.  These situations where the intention is suicide are seen by the FBI as pseudo-hostage situations and “Homicides-to-be.”  The most likely scenarios are:

·                           A discharged or irate employee takes a supervisor or co-worker hostage with the intention of killing them and then committing suicide.

·                           A spouse or lover who takes his wife or girl friend hostage, again with the intention of killing her and then killing himself.  These men are often batterers will known to the intended victim but in some cases are stalkers who the women may not even be aware are enamored of them.

·                           A mentally ill person who wishes to take others with him when he dies.  He may use explosives strapped to himself to get attention.

·                           The individual who can not bring himself to pull the trigger on himself so he sets up a situation that forces the law enforcement team to kill him.  Sometimes he states it that way, “I will continue to kill people until you get me.”


            3. Angry individuals who are doing this as a form of retaliation for what they see as an injustice.  They have been fired, their claim for disability has been disallowed, or they have not received benefits that they feel are coming to them.  Taking hostages is a way of calling attention to their plight and they want the sins committed against them corrected.


            4. Mentally disturbed individuals who are responding to delusional slights.  In this case the demands may be unreasonable and non-negotiable.  His enemies may exist only in his mind, but he is willing to punish a large number of people to achieve what he feels is justice.


            5. The terrorist.  These are usually zealots, true believers in some cause for which a body count is worthwhile.  According to FBI hostage negotiation trainers one group wants to die for their cause, which places them in the suicidal group given above.  The other group does not want to die, but is willing to die for their beliefs.  Both types are usually well trained in weapons, and terrorism techniques.  They see themselves as members of an army.  This second type, while they can be negotiated with, are highly dangerous.

            The intent is to get publicity for their cause.  There is much prior planning of the event and in many cases there is outside support, that is, some country or major group take responsibility and provide finances and equipment.  The demands they make are large enough that local authorities can not meet them, so a larger governmental unit needs to be involved.  The risk to the hostages is high because some of the terrorists may want to die as martyrs for their cause, country, religion, etc.

            The FBI Critical Incident Negotiation Team is available to help police with these situations.  The team has studied the potential threats posed by international terrorists and has examined the impact that culture, history, politics, and religion have on violence in the Middle East where most of today’s international terrorists come from.

            These terrorists take steps to prevent the development of Stockholm Syndrome by keeping hostages in separate spaces, often blind folding them and insisting that they not talk unless spoken to.


            6. Prison inmates.  This hostage situation usually happens when a group of convicts agree that prison conditions are unacceptable to them and believe that a hostage situation is likely to either produce changes directly by forced negotiation or indirectly by the media attention.  They know their hostages, often very well, and their physical surroundings. There may also be secondary motive for some prisoners to wreak vengeance on other convicts who they see as stool pigeons or others who need doing away with because of old business.

            Prison riots with hostages taken can be extremely stressful because frequently the violence results in other prisoners being killed and employees being threatened and mistreated.  They usually need more than the standard debriefing with additional individual and group psychotherapy to allow them to express their anger at the prisoners.  They will also need help in dealing with their vulnerability.  I have seen the personality tests of corrections personnel who were held hostage in a situation where many people were killed.  They were markedly elevated on many scales and indicated the need for long term therapy.  As result correctional facility employees who have been hostages may need to be transferred to a less violent facility or reassigned to a less stressful work area.


Some things you need to know about what is happening when you are taken hostage.

            Almost always before the negotiation starts the SWAT (STAR) team will be put into place.  Exits will be covered; an entry team prepared to rush the facility if the perpetrators begin to kill hostages and snipers will be in place to take advantage of an opening that will allow a clear shot at the perpetrators.  The SWAT team will be likely equipped with state of the art listening devices, various kinds of visual scopes, body shields and patience.

            When that team is in place some form of communication will be established with the perpetrators by a team of hostage negotiators who function separately from, but who are in close communication with the SWAT team. The most usual form of contact between the parties is by phone since most business and institutions are so equipped.  The SWAT team usually will not rush a place or shoot unless the negotiators have decided that further negotiations is useless and the hostages are in immediate danger of being killed. 

            The negotiators are usually willing to go on talking indefinitely if there is no immediate danger to hostages.  At the start of the negotiation the hostage taker is often on an adrenaline high, he is excited and in early stages may feel very powerful.  He is in charge and what he says and does will be listened to right up the ladder to the most important people in the city.  His ability to kill his hostages before he can be arrested or killed places him in a position to be reckoned with.

As time progresses he will want things besides what he had on his original list. For example, if he wanted a large sum of money and transportation he may later want something to drink, food or cigarettes. The negotiator will try to get him to trade hostages for what he wants. The goal is to get the hostage taker past the initial adrenaline rush to where he is tried, perhaps depressed and able to recognize he is in a hopeless situation where his best chance of survival is to surrender.


Treating survivors of a hostage situation

            Many experts advocate a three-phase program for treating trauma victims:

defusing, debriefing and follow-up. In many situations implementation of these interventions will be automatic since the company or institution has a plan of action in place and trained staff available to carry it out.

The defusing takes place as soon as hostages are released. First, they are checked to see if they need any medical attention. They are also asked what the conditions under which they were held were. Besides being helpful to the hostages it provides information to the authorities which can be used in any legal proceedings. If hostages are still being held it will provide information which may be helpful to the negotiator in the continuing crisis.

A debriefing session should be held 24 to 76 hours after the hostages are released. This is time enough for the original tension to die down but soon enough that any trauma symptoms have not become set. An ideal situation would be one where part of the debriefing team could be ex-hostages from other events who had been trained as peer-counselors.

Later follow-up with the victims is important because post-traumatic stress symptoms can show themselves if the individual is faced with circumstances which are similar to the hostage situation or symptoms can resurface around the anniversary of the event.

Dwayne Fuselier who was with the Special Operations and Research Unit of the FBI Academy says there are four possible responses to being a hostage.

One group uses the crisis as an opportunity for mastery and reassessment of values. They come out of the crisis with a feeling of having been given a new lease on life. A second group of stoic, non-psychologically minded people seems generally unaffected by the incident. Groups three and four suffer such symptoms as anxiety in the form of nightmares, startle reactions, phobias, depression and over use of drugs and alcohol. They also have paranoid reactions, obsessions and other idiosyncratic adjustment difficulties. The difference between the groups is that group three doesn't seek help while group four does.

The approach developed at New York's Karen Horney Victim Treatment Center is useful here. The former hostages initially need to have continual reassurance that their behavior during captivity was fully acceptable. The guilt issues that I deal with elsewhere in this blog need to be addressed here. If someone were killed there may also be strong reactions of the, "Why them, why not me?" The feeling of power needs to be restored by the encouragement of feelings of control to reduce the stress of being subjected to someone's will. The feelings of isolation need to be reduced.

In the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Strentz compares the characteristics of those hostages who "survived" with those who "succumbed. Survivors were those who went on to live healthy and productive lives with little evidence of long-term depression or other serious stress-induced illness. Succumbers were those who either did not live or required extensive psychotherapy to deal with their problems. The comparison is given in Table 1.






            Survivors                                   Succumbers

1.  Had faith in themselves and                      Felt abandoned

                        their government

2.  Contained their hostility                           Acted out aggression

3.  Maintained a mentally superior                Pitied self


4.  Used rationalization                                  Despaired

5.  Used creative fantasy to fill                      Dwelled on the situation

                        the hours

6.  Established routines                                  Suspended activities

7.  Projected image of mature            stability           Acted immaturely

8.  Sought flexibility and used humor                       Behaved more obsessive-compulsively


The families of hostages

In short term negotiated situations the family may not learn of the crisis, but in a prison riot, or terrorist situation where the negotiation may go on for the days the family will almost certainly be aware.

The family members of hostages will be very concerned about their welfare and can be traumatized by a hostage incident. When they are informed that a situation is in progress and their relative is being held their first inclination is to come to the scene. Typically there are two ways of responding, one is to seek more information and a desire to know all the details of what is happening. The second, is to avoid information as too painful and deny the seriousness of the event. Because most people will be in the information seeking group it would be well for the management at the site to provide a center where family members can gather during the crisis. This allows the family to receive up-to-date information about the evolving crisis.


If some family members are unusually distraught crisis intervention counseling can be offered. The center should be located in some spot where the family members can be protected from intrusions of media with their unfeeling questions and lack of sympathy for they may be feeling. There should also be arrangements made for a TV set, and telephones.





From: Bolz, F. (1987) How to be a Hostage and Live.  Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.


1.                         Don’t be a hero.  Accept the situation and be prepared to wait.  Attempting to make a heroic rescue can make the situation much worse.  Presence of a weapon and physical ability of a captor who is adrenaline “rushed” make it extremely risky.

2.                         Follow instructions.  During the first frantic minutes of a hostage taking, the taker must show they are in command and are willing to use any means to do so.  Don’t show any resistance or hesitation to follow instructions.

3.                         Don’t speak unless spoken to.  The verbal skills of health care and human service workers may be viewed negatively by hostage takers.  They may be perceived as threatening to the hostage taker’s sense of control.

4.                         Don’t make suggestions.  Attempting to problem solve may do harm rather than good.  Trying to be “helpful” may antagonize the hostage takers since only those in power have the authority to solve problems.

5.                         Try to rest.  The intensity of the situation can be very emotionally draining and there is no telling what the duration will be.  Stay rested to keep alert mentally and physically.

6.                         Carefully weight escape options.  Any attempt to escape should be carefully weighted against the chances of being caught or provoking harm against other hostages.

7.                         Request aid if needed.  Once the takeover is complete and under control of the hostage takers, it may be appropriate to ask for assistance, as in the case of medication.  Do this quietly and directly to the hostage taker. Do not dwell on the issue since constant queries may bring unwanted attention to you.

8.                         Be observant.  If you are released while others are held, you are an invaluable source of information on the situation. Notice the number of perpetrators, their appearance, their routines, affect and context of conversation, chain of command, positioning, location and position of hostages, etc.  Keeping track of this also helps you keep mentally alert.

9.                         Don’t be argumentative.  Arguing makes you stand out and draws attention.  As such you may be perceived as a threat and treated accordingly.  Philosophical, political, religious, or other emotionally loaded topics should be met with simple agreement and validation of the captor’s beliefs.

10.                        Be patient.  Even when it appears that nothing is happening, be confident that time is on the side of the authorities and you.

11.                        Keep a low profile and avoid standing out.  Besides not verbally standing out, get rid of any identifying information that might make you seem a threat, an important person, or object of hated.

12.                        Threat captors with deference and respect.  Remember that no matter how bizarre, the hostage takers are operating out of a conceptual framework that makes sense to them.  Respond in a respectful and empathic manner, have mild eye contact, take a non-aggressive stance, speak politely, and establish a personal relationship with the hostage takers.

13.                       Don’t slight the seriousness of the situation by attempting to inject humor into it.  Making jokes or humorous remarks may make the hostage takers believe that they are not being taken seriously.

14.                        Be careful of trickery.  Trying to gain the upper hand by trickery or subterfuge is very risky.  If the hostage takers find out you are deceiving them, they may an example of you.

15.                        Don’t embarrass your captors.  Many hostage takers do not have the abilities or skills of health or human service workers.  If you place your self in a one-up position, you run the risk of making them feel foolish.  They may ready have strong feelings about being taken advantage of by the system.

16.                        When rescue come, follow directions of the rescuers precisely.  Rescuers may not differentiate between hostage takes and hostages.  Staying flat on the ground with hands ad arms covering your head lets them know you are not a threat.  If during a rescue, there is a lot of noise and confusion, avoid the temptation to stand up and run.

17.                        Debrief immediately after your release.  It is extremely important to talk out your feeling immediately after an intense experience such as hostage taking.  No matter how much you feel in control or want to forget the experience, the potential for post-traumatic stress disorder is high without debriefing.



Butler WM, Leitenberg H, Fuselier GD (1993) The use of mental health professional consultants to police hostage negotiation teams. Behav Sci Law 11:213–221 ...


Fuselier, G.W. (1984)   A practical overview of hostage negotiations,  Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C.   


Strentz, T. (1979). The Stockholm syndrome: Law enforcement policy and ego defenses of the hostage. FBI Law Enforcement Bull. 48: 2-12.


Strentz, T. (1985). Preparing persons at risk as hostages. In Turner, J. T. (ed.), Violence in the Medical Care Setting. Aspen Systems Corporation, Rockville, Md.



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