"So You Want to Be a Hostage Negotiator?"
by Dan Kapelovitz
Many Hollywood films feature hostage negotiators in action, but what does it take to be a real-life crisis negotiator? I spoke to veteran LAPD Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) negotiator Bob Gallegos Sr. to find out what the job actually entails.
Gallegos has been with the Los Angeles Police Department for 32 years, 20 of which have been with SWAT. He's been a negotiator for the past 18 of those 20 years.
Whereas many other law-enforcement agencies use negotiators from outside departments, SWAT is based on a "centralized" concept and therefore utilizes its own tactical people to negotiate. Every member of the SWAT team goes through the crisis-negotiation school, which consists of 40 hours of education, during which supervisors can determine who would make a good negotiator.
Training never ends for SWAT officers. "We spend probably 40% [of the time] in training," says Gallegos. "The first hour of our duty day, most of the time, is dedicated to working out. In the type of business that we're in, we need to be in good physical condition."
In fact, every 90 days, SWAT personnel must pass a physical-fitness test; they must perform a minimum of 40 push-ups, 60 sit-ups, five pull-ups and be able to run a three-mile course (with hills) in under 25 minutes. Twice a year, they are tested on an obstacle course. "The individual course takes about four to six minutes, but that's four to six minutes of beating your head against a solid brick wall. It has a little bit of everything--running, jumping, climbing, traversing over obstacles, climbing a 12-foot chain-link fence and dragging a 160-pound dummy."
In addition to physical training, SWAT members continually learn techniques of the trade. Approximately every three months, negotiators spend a day answering phones at a suicide-prevention hotline. "That helps with your expertise and dealing with folks in a crisis situation." They also spend a day every three months studying crisis situations from around the country to learn from the cases of other tactical units.
The SWAT team is responsible for hostage, barricade and suicide situations, as well as servicing high-risk warrants. "We stay pretty busy, but when we do not have a SWAT mission per se, we actually work a crime-suppression detail; so we're an additional resource."
Of the crisis situations, the most common are jumpers or people contemplating suicide via other methods (knives, guns, suicide-by-cop). "The most important thing is to allow the person to vent," says Gallegos. "'Tell me what's going on.' 'Explain to me why you're doing what you're doing.' In most cases, our first words to him are to introduce ourselves and explain that we're here to help and to paint a picture that we are not going to go away. Sometimes they're irate, and your job is just to listen, let them talk, and air out their differences--that way you can maybe drive them in the direction of problem solving."
In the vast majority of the cases, the person doesn't go through with the suicide. "We have a pretty good success rate. At the top of my head, I'd say 85, 90 percent of the time we are successful. We have those situations where the person is completely set on doing what they are going to do, and they have. But there are very few. Do we have people that we see again? Yes. And the second time it's a little more difficult because they pretty much know what to expect."
The past week has been a busy one for SWAT. Just two days before I interviewed Officer Gallegos and four days before Christmas, he and his team were called to a residential hotel in downtown L.A., where a man was on the roof contemplating suicide. It turned out that a woman was found dead in the hotel room that she and the man had rented. Before the SWAT team fully deployed, the patrol officers at the scene talked the man down, and he was arrested for murder.
"Saturday we had a suicidal person on an electrical tower, 80, 90 feet off the ground. He was talked down. He only mumbled a couple of words to the negotiator, but the negotiator kept talking to him and explaining to him that we were there to help him and, subsequently, he came down. Since Saturday, we have had four call-outs. Before Saturday, for five weeks, we did not have one. The time of season brings calls. When it's cold, we do not see very many. In the summertime, we see quite a few. The full moon--we see a few."
I asked Officer Gallegos if he thought there were more situations during a full moon because it was brighter or because the moon actually made people act crazy. "If you talk to the law-enforcement community, the emergency room doctors and nurses, we all believe that the full moon has some kind of weird aura about it that causes people to go one way or another. We believe it. In other circles, they find it kind of funny that we feel that way, but we see the different things and the way people act."
Over the years, Gallegos had heard a multitude of demands from hostage takers. "On one caper, he wanted $500,000, an armored truck to take him to the airport and a plane. Then we have the simple ones: 'I want cigarettes,' 'I want food,' 'I want something to drink,' and sometimes we actually introduce those things. 'Hey, it's a hot day; you've been up there for awhile. Let me get you some water.' "
Do the officers ever actually obtain the half million bucks? "It's going to be situation-driven as far as how much involved we get into it. On that particularly case, we actually did have the money. There's an arrangement the City of Los Angeles has made with the Federal Depository here in Los Angeles, that we can obtain large sums of money in a crisis situation. Basically, what we are using it for is to show good faith. We obtained the armored truck, and we had a tactical plan in place that was not going to allow these folks to leave. Realistically, we can't let a situation leave a location or go into a car and become mobile. You're just opening up into the big unknown, and there are community-at-welfare [issues] at stage here. In that particular case, we used the blending of verbal tactics with physical tactics and changing the subject's behavior, and they gave up."
In the action thriller "The Negotiator," Samuel L. Jackson plays a negotiator who takes hostages. His character explains that you never say "no" to a hostage taker. But Officer Gallegos says that is not always the case. "It's okay to say no. There are times that the demands are so far out, that there is no way it's going to happen, and you have to be up front because the big thing is not to be caught in a lie. You tell them something, you better be able to make that happen. If they're asking for the moon, you say, 'You know what? I'd love to give it to you, but it's not going to happen.' Then you're going to have to redirect that negotiation. We don't deliver narcotics. We don't deliver alcohol, even medication is going to be situation-driven."
Also unlike in the movies, Gallegos has never had someone demand to speak to a news reporter. "But if the subject became adamant and said, 'I want to speak to John Doe, the news anchorman for channel 99,' and it's a situation where we need to do that, we can make arrangements in some cases."
Gallegos estimates that most situations take about three to four hours. "We have an open checkbook when it comes to time to negotiate. We can take as long as is necessary. If it turns into a more volatile situation where people are getting hurt, then obviously, a tactics resolution will occur."
Every situation has different challenges, and that's one of the things Officer Gallegos likes about the job. "Sometimes I have negotiations that are real easy, nothing to it, and then some really test me--but when it's over, there's a real good feeling that you were able to resolve something, to ease somebody that was in such crisis that he was willing to take his life or somebody else's life. So it's a good deal, and I wouldn't change it for the world."
(This article first appeared in the March 2005 issue of Men's Edge Magazine)
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