Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without headlines of a hijacking, prison break or holdup involving hostages. Last week, two convicts tried—unsuccessfully, it turned out—to hold seven hostages in the Washington, D.C. Federal Courthouse.
One city that moved early to counter such threatening situations is New York, which has set up its own Hostage Negotiating Team. In its first year, the team received some 400 calls—and so far has not lost a single hostage, once negotiations were started. Hostage expert for the New York City Police Department is Harvey Schlossberg—a cop with a Ph.d., who was a patrolman for the 13 years it took to earn his doctorate in clinical psychology. In 1972, Schlossberg, now a detective and author of Psychologist with a Gun, set up the department’s hostage unit. He also runs psychological testing and screening for the 32,000-man police force. With Jim Jerome of PEOPLE, Schlossberg discussed the down-to-earth theory and delicate practice of freeing hostages.
Is the present epidemic of crimes involving hostages something new?
Probably not, but press and TV coverage have made us more aware. The air hijackings gave a lot of drama to hostage situations, and then everything like that started getting more coverage.
Why did the New York Police Department set up its Hostage Negotiating Team?
The Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics. That started us off. We decided we should have some means of handling similar incidents because of all the consulates and embassies in New York. That’s when I got involved.
Did you have trouble finding the right men for the team?
The 68 men we now have were screened from about 500 applicants. We didn’t want anyone self-destructive. Offering yourself in exchange for a hostage is a great way to commit suicide and earn a medal.
In a hostage situation, what is the advantage of a psychological approach?
We offer an alternative to storming a place and using gas and firearms. Such tactics are useful, and they have their place. But once you’re committed to violent assault, it is irreversible.
What kind of person takes a hostage?
There are all kinds of diagnostic labels, but if you scrape away all the jargon, these criminals are really what we call inadequate personalities. People unable to compete in, or succeed at anything in our society. In fact, most hostage situations are fancy suicide attempts. But these criminals feel so inadequate, they can’t even commit suicide. So they trigger a police assault to get the cops to do the job.
What is the criminal’s state of mind during a hostage situation?
He is in terrific conflict. Suddenly this “inadequate” guy is getting lots of attention from the press, the cameras, the police. He is terribly frightened by the feeling of power he now has. He is sweating, his heart is palpitating, and he can’t process his thoughts. He is super alert, aware of hearing things he never heard before, very tense, getting ready for something to happen.
What, then, does your negotiator do?
Simply by talking to him we buy time. The anxiety—both his and the negotiator’s—lessens and he can focus his mind on something and shut off that crazy flow of thoughts and suspicions. Once he stops to think, he might see how illogical his demands are.
What do your negotiators talk about?
The primary rule is don’t talk about what you want to talk about, but what he wants to talk about. Talk about things totally unrelated to the situation. Recently in New York, Floyd Steele, who had just killed his brother-in-law, was keeping the murdered man’s 5-year-old stepdaughter as hostage. Our man got in there and spent hours with Steele’s Magnum .357 at his forehead, talking quietly about Steele’s working in the railyards, and about fishing. It drained away Steele’s anxiety. When the criminal loosens up, he may let down his guard and make a mistake. That’s how our man snatched out the girl before Steele realized what was happening.
How useful is the old Hollywood scenario where the family members and the priest come down and plead with the criminal?
Well, experience has shown that if the guy in there got along with his wife, felt his mother loved him, and believed in the teachings of his church, he wouldn’t be in there to begin with. It’s his relationships with these people that are very disturbed, and they’re the audience he’s playing to. Of course, if he asks for his family, we get them. But usually, by bringing these people in, we are saying to him: “The house is all sold out. Go ahead with the whole show.” He’s much better off with an understanding stranger.
In the Washington Courthouse situation, one convict’s mother was present.
The Washington police did an excellent job, but I imagine that having the mother complaining that her son was framed incited rather than calmed the situation.
Did you expect the two convicts to prolong negotiations?
Yes. Their demands weren’t direct. They started talking about radio and TV time. If they had meant business, they’d have demanded an airplane and stuck to it.
What kind of chemistry takes place between the criminal and the negotiator?
When people are pressed together in a strange, intense situation, something develops, a kind of allegiance, a warmth. Our men try to form that kind of positive relationship. There have even been times when a negotiator, after an apprehension, is reluctant to book his criminal. In fact, a negotiator takes on a whole spectrum of roles. The first one is friendship. As long as the criminal believes he can work out some kind of solution to his problem and accomplish something, he won’t kill.
What impact do the press and community have?
They play a major part. They put pressure on police to do something. They reinforce the traditional image of the cop that “he’s here, everything’s gonna be okay.” The cop buys that image too. When he sees the crowd and the cameras he says, “I gotta do something.” When the cops get no results at first, they can get desperate. Then you have the old Wild West routine of lighting the haywagon, sending it in and burning the criminals out.
Is that what you feel happened to the Symbionese Liberation Army in the shoot-out in Los Angeles?
I’m really second guessing. But the cops individually must have felt very threatened. So they acted out their fantasy role about what a man should do in that kind of situation. They got caught up in an ego trip and followed it through.
At what point is it, then, that you decide to abandon negotiations and resort to violence?
There’s never really an excuse to do that, except, of course, if your criminal, or criminals, start systematically killing the hostages. Once they throw out the first body, it’s an entirely different situation. They’re gonna kill them all. But short of that, we should keep them talking. Remember, both the criminal and the cop wants the thing to end. Sure, one of our jobs could go on for two or three months. But if no one is hurt, what the hell’s the difference?