When two American missionaries were kidnapped last July in Haiti, negotiators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation 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 the US 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 US and overseas, their case highlights the role of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit.
The unit, a major component of the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group, was formed in 1994 and is dedicated to resolving hostage, barricade, attempted suicide, and kidnapping cases throughout the world.
“Any time a US citizen gets kidnapped overseas we are responsible for providing the negotiation piece of the investigation,” said FBI 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 the FBI Legal staff, as well as 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 US, 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 US 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 the incidents lasted, and how communications were handled.
FBI agents, meanwhile, have to pass a rigorous two-week National Crisis Negotiation Course, held a few times a year at the FBI Academy in Quantico, 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.”
Sources: Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, National Association of Chiefs of Police
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. He's former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed "Crack City" by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for a number of organizations. He's also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country. He writes for many police and crime magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer, Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and others. He's appeared as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, Fox News, etc. His book Assume The Position is available at Amazon.Com, Booksamillion.com, and can be ordered at local bookstores. Kouri holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master of arts in public administration and he's a board certified protection professional.