Real Crime

Communication Secrets from a Top Hostage Negotiator

A SWAT team outside of a business where hostages were being held
A SWAT team in Placentia, CA outside of a business where hostages were being held by two suspects in February 2004. Photo by Geraldine Wilkins/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.
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    Communication Secrets from a Top Hostage Negotiator

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      Adam Janos

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      Communication Secrets from a Top Hostage Negotiator

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      June 23, 2018

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      A+E Networks

If you’re on the phone with Sergeant Drucker, it probably means you’re in trouble.

For over a decade, Drucker has been a team leader in crisis negotiation at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. His job is to coordinate police talks when a suspected criminal has barricaded himself in somewhere and is refusing to come out—often armed, sometimes with hostages and usually in a heated emotional frenzy that makes him impervious to rational deal-making.

In those circumstances, communication with Sergeant Drucker—or a member of Drucker’s team—carries enormous consequence, and can mean the difference between the amicable application of handcuffs or a SWAT team kicking down the door, guns blazing.

Drucker doesn’t mention any of that when he first gets on the phone with the suspect, though.

“I say, ‘Hey, my name is Harry.'” Drucker says. “‘Are you okay in there? I’m here to talk to you.’ I don’t give them rank. You rarely want to say, ‘I’m a negotiator.’ Most of the people we’re talking to are not very fond of police.”

According to Drucker, crisis-negotiation units are in many ways antithetical to the rest of the police force—starting with the way talent is evaluated. In contrast to the way many other departments hire, Drucker says, he’s not interested in bringing on “golden child” officers with flawless résumés.

“I don’t want a cookie-cutter team,” he says. Instead, he prefers officers who have had problems like rocky marriages, addiction in their families and difficulty raising families. He believes those bumps and bruises help negotiators foster the compassion needed to successfully connect with suspects—which in turn brings about more favorable resolutions.

Most police departments put crisis negotiators through a 40 hour basic negotiation-training course: The FBI also offers crisis-negotiation training, as do private companies like the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), where Drucker teaches part-time.

One of the principle underpinnings for crisis-negotiation training is the Behavioral Change Stairway Model, which was originally developed by the FBI. That model suggests that there are five steps of trust that build to changing the behavior of a suspect in a crisis situation, each of which the negotiator must unlock to get to a desired outcome.

The Five Steps of Trust:

Step 1: Really Listen
The first step involves active listening: opening communication by inquiring about the suspect’s situation. According to Drucker, a common misconception about crisis negotiators is that they’re smooth talkers.

“When we look for new team members, we’re not looking for the guy who can tell a good story,” he says. “Part of the road to building rapport with somebody is conversational generosity. Allow the other person to [talk] the majority of the conversation. [You] only talk 20 to 30 percent of the time.”

Step 2: Empathize
A negotiator who actively listens to the suspect can eventually empathize with him, the second step in the Stairway Model. That’s not as easy as it might sound, given that suspects have sometimes committed acts of great barbarity only moments earlier. Drucker says one of the first rules of crisis negotiation is that you can’t “pay attention to what really happened, what the person is wanted for, what they’re doing. Just talk to them as a person.”

Step 3: Create Rapport
Once a negotiator has empathy for a suspect, the key is to get the suspect to empathize back, thereby “creating rapport”—the third of five steps. For Drucker, rapport is the cornerstone for what he sees as the most rewarding part of his job—making meaningful connections that can have lifelong ramifications

“We had a hostage situation at a bank, many years ago,” Drucker says. “Based on how [the suspect] was approached during negotiations…even the SWAT team commented on how polite they were. After doing jail time, they completely turned their life around, started a business and are now a productive member of society. And it can all be traced back to that incident.”

“A lot of times, even hardened criminals have never had anyone really hear them,” he says.

Steps 4 and 5: Influence the Suspect and Change His Behavior
If the negotiator and the suspect have rapport, the negotiator can begin to influence the suspect (step four), leading to a desired behavioral change (the fifth and final step). Most often, that means the suspect coming out unarmed to submit to arrest.

Drucker says one of the core components of the job is in tone of voice, and that a common mistake untrained officers make when negotiating is using too authoritative a tone. Women negotiators, he adds, often do a better job finding the warm tone needed to bring about a favorable outcome.

“In general, women are extraordinary negotiators,” he says. “Putting a woman on the line is often what calms a suspect down. We’ve got a very large Hispanic population in Los Angeles, and I’ve found that our female negotiators can really sweet-talk males of Hispanic heritage. I don’t know if [that’s because] they hear the mother in the person, [or because] there’s not a macho butting of heads… Probably of all the negotiators that I’ve met across the country, I would say the best ones are female.”

When negotiations end peacefully, Drucker can find his job tremendously rewarding. When they break down, though, the guilt associated with lost life can emotionally reverberate for years.

“I’ve had a couple people commit suicide on the phone with me,” he says. One of the suicides that still haunts him occurred three years ago. Drucker was talking to a suspect who had barricaded himself inside a store he’d robbed. The two spent five hours on the phone, discussing the suspect’s football allegiances, exchanging jokes.

“I genuinely liked the person. If it weren’t for the fact that there was a SWAT team involved and all the police response, I was enjoying the conversation. There was talk of the future, what this person wanted to do,” he says. The suicide “wasn’t something I saw coming.”

As far as advice he’d offer to civilians trying to negotiate more ordinary crises, Drucker says the best strategy for resolving arguments is to not open them by thinking about how to score the win.

“Instead of constantly pleading your case and your side of things, do some kind of inquiry to find out why what’s important to [the other person] is important to them,” he says. “Start talking about that side of things before you pitch your side of what you want. It’s about having an understanding. You don’t have to agree with them. But it will help you understand why they want what they want, and it’ll make them feel that you care about that.”

As for whether he considers himself a more persuasive person because of all of his work negotiating with hardened criminals, Drucker demurs.

“Not where my kids are concerned,” he says. “It doesn’t work with kids.”

Read more: How to Tell if Someone is Lying: A Retired Detective Reveals All

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