The Role of Mental Health Consultants on Hostage Negotiation Teams


Hostage and barricade situations occur frequently in law enforcement practice. Commonly, police deal with hostage/barricade subjects whose motivation is influenced by psychiatric illness, substance abuse or extreme emotional states. It has been argued that mentally ill people comprise 50% of all hostage/barricade subjects. How can psychiatrists assist in defusing these intense situations?

Psychiatric Times

December 2004

Vol. XXI

Issue 14

Hostage and barricade situations occur frequently in law enforcement practice. Large-scale standoffs, such as the Branch Davidian incident, attract intense media coverage and capture the public's attention. More commonly, however, police deal with hostage/barricade subjects whose motivation is influenced by psychiatric illness, substance abuse or extreme emotional states. With that context in mind, this paper examines the role of mental health consultants with hostage negotiation teams.

Overview of Hostage/Barricade Incidents

A hostage situation occurs when one or more people are held against their will, with release contingent upon certain demands being met. Regardless of the specific demand, the perpetrator clearly communicates that the hostages will not be released unless certain conditions are satisfied. A barricade situation is one in which an individual is isolated, either with or without hostages, but makes no demands other than "go away." In such instances it is difficult to initiate negotiations to resolve the incident.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), motivations for taking hostages have traditionally fallen into the following categories: as a means to escape from an interrupted criminal act; to gain support or publicity for radical causes; or to influence governments to change a domestic or foreign policy (FBI Special Operations and Research Unit, 1981). Recently a trend has emerged in which hostages are taken to gain retribution for real or perceived wrongful acts occurring on an interpersonal level. These crimes may also express a personal agenda related to an underlying mental illness. This is particularly true for barricaded subjects who threaten suicide.

It has been argued that mentally ill people comprise 50% of all hostage/barricade subjects (Fuselier, 1981). Generalizations about psychopathology come primarily from anecdotal studies or single case reports. Few studies have examined the incidence and prevalence of psychopathology among hostage/barricade subjects.

Characteristics of Hostage/ Barricade Situations

A study of 120 incidents revealed the most common situation was a barricaded individual who held hostages at some time during the incident (55.83%) (Feldmann, 2001). Barricaded individuals without hostages (27.5%) and hostage situations without an accompanying barricade (16.67%) were less common.

Six categories of hostage/barricade incidents were identified (Figure 1) and occurred across a variety of locations (Figure 2). Most incidents were committed by males under the age of 30. Offenders usually acted alone and most had prior criminal records. Interpersonal disputes or grievances precipitated most incidents. Firearms were involved in 75% of incidents. Nearly all offenders had a psychiatric diagnosis. Personality disorders, substance abuse and mood disorders comprised the largest diagnostic groups. Suicidal ideation was frequent. Most incidents were negotiated but the negotiations were successful less than 40% of the time.

Hostage Negotiation Techniques

Hostage negotiation techniques were developed in the United States during the mid-1970s by the New York City Police Department (Hassel, 1983). Similar techniques were developed at the same time in Western Europe. Subsequently, many law enforcement agencies, in particular the FBI, have developed sophisticated negotiation strategies. The goals of negotiation are to establish and conduct meaningful dialogue with the hostage/barricade individual. Negotiation involves a mutual give-and-take in which some demands are met in exchange for safe release of the hostages or surrender of the individual.

Hostage/barricade situations are fluid events influenced by variables both internal and external to the incident. As a result, the negotiation process takes on a dynamic quality. In order to arrive at a successful outcome, the negotiator must fully understand the dynamics of the situation and be prepared to alter negotiation strategies as needed.

A series of distinct stages occur during negotiations. First, contact must be established with the individual. The negotiator must then gather intelligence about the situation including information about the individual, motivation for the incident, and the identity and condition of the hostages. Developing and maintaining a relationship with the hostage-taker is the most critical and difficult phase of negotiation. Erratic behavior or intense affect levels by the subject may complicate the development of a working relationship. In all situations, however, the perpetrator must come to view the negotiator as a trusted figure who is committed to a peaceful resolution of the incident.

Dealing with the demands of the individual is another crucial negotiation phase. Demands may be varied and complex, depending upon the individual's motivation. Certain demands (e.g., food) are met in exchange for release of hostages. This helps to strengthen the relationship between the negotiator and the subject. Other demands (e.g., weapons or a getaway car) are not met under any circumstances. An interesting exception to the importance of dealing with demands involves terrorists who take hostages. Terrorists frequently make no demands and have little interest in negotiating a peaceful resolution. Their primary motivation is to use actual or threatened violence to make a political statement. This often precludes meaningful negotiations.

The final stage involves resolution of the incident and the accompanying surrender ritual. This phase must be carefully scripted and coordinated with tactical personnel in order to avoid an armed confrontation. The surrender ritual must include face-saving procedures for the subject to prevent excessive frustration or humiliation that may trigger violence.

The dynamic nature of hostage/barricade incidents has important implications for the development of negotiation strategies. Each situation is unique. The motivation and goals of the subject must be understood in order to develop appropriate negotiation strategies. The passage of time is also important because it facilitates diffusion of highly emotional states, allows for careful consideration of intervention strategies, permits police to secure the area and obtain adequate resources, and allows for the gathering of background information on the subject. Most important, however, is the fact that the relationship between negotiator and hostage-taker takes time to develop.

Mental Health Consultation to Negotiation Teams

Given the complexity and danger associated with hostage/barricade situations, mental health consultants can provide valuable assistance to negotiators in several areas (Feldmann, 1998). Consultants are typically forensic psychiatrists or psychologists, although other mental health care professionals may serve in this role. No formal standards currently exist for consulting with hostage negotiation teams. Indeed, this is a rapidly evolving field of forensic activity. Certain basic qualifications, however, must be considered (Butler et al., 1993). Adequate clinical training and experience is essential, as is familiarity with basic forensic issues. An understanding of the organization of law enforcement agencies, and a willingness to work within that system, is crucial. This includes recognition that the consultant must ultimately defer in decision making to the on-scene commander. The consultant should also be familiar with basic hostage negotiation concepts. Finally, the consultant must never attempt to assume the role of negotiator; this is a function reserved only for trained law enforcement officers.

The functions of mental health consultants are summarized in the Table. A primary role is the assessment of mentally ill subjects. Crucial diagnostic information, such as the presence of suicidal ideation, may be obtained by monitoring the content of negotiations. This information is used to formulate effective negotiation strategies. Consultants may also assist in gathering intelligence about the situation and conducting on-scene interviews with family members, friends and witnesses. Reviewing other sources of information readily available to police, such as prison or probation records, may yield valuable clinical data.

By monitoring negotiation and management strategies, the mental health consultant can provide insight into the dynamics of the incident to assist negotiators in maintaining objectivity and neutrality. In this role it is useful for the consultant to listen directly to the negotiations. Evidence of subtle shifts in mood, stress levels, signs of intoxication or symptoms of thought disorder may be shared immediately with the negotiator. The emphasis of this important activity is on facilitating communication between the negotiator and the subject. The consultant also monitors the nature of the relationship between the negotiator and the subject. The affective reaction of the individual toward the negotiator is extremely important and can often be utilized to direct the negotiations toward a successful outcome.

The mental health consultant also assists by monitoring stress levels during the incident. Failure to manage stress effectively may destabilize the situation. Three levels of assessment must occur: stress on the negotiators; stress levels among the hostage/barricade subjects; and reactions of the hostages. Stress may lead to impulsive or aggressive behavior by the perpetrator. Negotiators experience both external and internal sources of stress (Bohl, 1992). External sources of negotiator stress include conflicts with commanders over negotiation strategies and pressure for tactical interventions. Internal sources of negotiator stress include concerns that the incident will not be resolved peacefully. Most negotiators believe that a tactical assault equates with failure. Thus, a real or perceived breakdown in the negotiation process impacts the negotiator's sense of competence. The triad of education, peer support and crisis debriefing is essential in dealing with negotiator stress. Finally, stress may influence hostages to act in unpredictable ways that complicate management of the situation. Careful assessment of stress levels experienced by the hostages will assist negotiators in calming and stabilizing the situation.

Most police officers serving on hostage negotiation teams do so on a part-time basis. Training for negotiators focuses primarily on basic negotiation concepts and tactical issues. Relatively little attention is given to mental health issues and crisis intervention skills. It is essential, therefore, that the consultant provides adequate training regarding mental health issues. Training must occur at two levels. First, negotiators should receive exposure to these areas during their initial training. In addition, regular updates and in-depth sessions on particular topics (e.g., suicide assessment and crisis intervention) should be included in the on-going training that team members receive.

The consultant can also develop training scenarios in which negotiators deal with individuals who are suicidal, intoxicated or psychotic. Role-playing or standardized patients may be utilized in these exercises with the "hostage-taker" reflecting the type of behavior and verbal responses characteristic of a particular illness. Training sessions should be as realistic as possible and should be carried out in conjunction with the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. Another training strategy involves visits to psychiatric units where volunteer patients are interviewed by members of the negotiation team in order to acquire firsthand knowledge of psychiatric symptoms. This experience familiarizes negotiators with the types of psychopathology they may encounter during actual incidents.

Although much has been learned about the management of hostage/barricade situations, negotiation remains an intuitive rather than empirical activity. Mental health consultants can help foster research into the effectiveness of various crisis management strategies. The establishment of a research database on hostage/barricade incidents, for example, will assist in determining what factors influence success and failure. The database may be accessed via notebook computer housed in the Hostage Negotiation Team command post. As intelligence is gathered about a given situation, incidents with similar characteristics can be retrieved from the database. Negotiators, consultants and commanders may then review what worked and what did not in related situations. While no database can replace the experience of trained negotiators, this instrument is of value in evaluating various management strategies and in anticipating unexpected complications.

Dr. Feldmann is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He serves as a consultant to several federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.


Bohl NK (1992), Hostage negotiator stress. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 61(8):23-26.

Butler WM, Leitenberg H, Fuselier GD (1993), The use of mental health professional consultants to police hostage negotiation teams. Behav Sci Law 11(2):213-221.

FBI Special Operations and Research Unit (1981), A terrorist organizational profile: a psychological role model. In: Behavioral and Quantitative Perspectives on Terrorism, Alexander Y, Gleason JM, eds. New York: Pergamon Press.

Feldmann TB (1998), Psychiatric consultation to police hostage negotiation teams incidents: implications for negotiations strategies and training. Amer J Forensic Psychiatr 19:27-44.

Feldmann TB (2001), Characteristics of hostage and barricade incidents: implications for negotiation strategies and training. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations 1(1):3-33.

Fuselier GD (1981), A practical overview of hostage negotiations, part I. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 50:2-6.

Hassel C (1983), Preparing law enforcement personnel for terrorist incidents. In: Terrorism, Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Eichelman B, Soskis D, Reid W, eds. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

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