Kidnapping and Crisis Negotiation
How We Respond to Kidnappings
|Crisis negotiators, like those shown here in
an operations center, work closely with
tactical teams like SWAT and Hostage
Rescue, in barricade situations.
When two American missionaries were kidnapped last July in Haiti, FBI negotiators were called in to secure their release. The missionaries, both North Carolina natives in Port Au Prince aiding relief efforts in the beleaguered Caribbean republic, would be held for four days as their captors demanded a ransom and our crisis experts guided their families through wrenching negotiations.
In the end, negotiations succeeded and the two men were freed. Like nearly 100 other kidnappings of Americans in Haiti last year, and still other hostage-takings in the U.S. and overseas, their case highlights the role of our Crisis Negotiation Unit.
The unit, a major component of our Critical Incident Response Group, which was formed in 1994 in response to the Waco siege a year earlier, is dedicated to resolving hostage, barricade, attempted suicide, and kidnapping cases throughout the world.
“Any time a U.S. citizen gets kidnapped overseas we are responsible for providing the negotiation piece of the investigation,” said Special Agent John Flood, head of the negotiation unit, which manages more than 350 negotiators spread across our 56 field offices. Flood said international calls routinely come through our network of Legal Attaché (Legat) offices, which coordinate with Flood’s unit, which in turn calls up rapid responders in the field. Every office has at least five trained crisis negotiators, Flood said. “There are always two people with bags packed ready for deployments.”
Once deployed, negotiators meet up with our Legat staff, as well as U.S. Department of State or military officials, and make recommendations. Often negotiators work closely with the victims’ family members to resolve cases. In the Haiti case, for example, negotiators set up camp in a hotel and coached the victims’ families on how to converse with the captors.
Flood’s unit has deployed overseas about 300 times since its creation. One recent notable case includes the kidnapping and eventual release of journalist Jill Carroll in Iraq, who was held captive for 82 days.
In the U.S., negotiators work closely with tactical teams, like SWAT and Hostage Rescue, in barricade situations. Unlike what you might see on TV, one group doesn’t trump the other; they work on a continuum. Flood calls it a parallel application of force. “If we employ our strategies it provides a more risk-effective environment for our tactical people to work in,” he said. “One of the most important things we do is keep our personnel safe.”
In fact, most barricades and hostage situations in the U.S. are resolved through negotiations or a combination of negotiation and tactical force. Less than one in five incidents are resolved strictly through tactical means, Flood said. Indeed, the unit’s Latin motto is “Pax per Conloquium,” which means “resolution through dialogue.”
The FBI maintains the only database on barricade situations. The Hostage Barricade Database System contains information on about 5,000 incidents, most from state and local jurisdictions. The database is a service for law enforcement to learn from other incidents—how they were resolved, weapons used, how long they incidents lasted, and how communications were handled.
Our agents, meanwhile, have to pass a rigorous two-week National Crisis Negotiation Course, held a few times a year at the FBI Academy in Virginia, to become negotiators. The course puts students in real-life scenarios and tests their mettle, because there are no second chances when called to help.
In the end it’s all about using communications as a tool to keep Americans from harm. “We save people’s lives,” Flood said. “That’s what we do.”
- Critical Incident Response Group