November 19, 2022

How the NYPD revolutionized the police response to hostage situations


PERF members,

I’ve been listening to the first few episodes of a fascinating new NYPD podcast called “Talk to Me: The True Story of the World’s First Hostage Negotiation Team.” In the early 1970s, following tragedies such as the Attica prison riot (in which 39 people died) and the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, an NYPD chief named Simon Eisdorfer decided that the department needed a system for handling hostage incidents instead of just improvising a response to each crisis. An NYPD team pioneered the use of psychology in saving lives and created a model still used around the world today.

To learn more about “Talk to Me” I talked to its creator, Ed Conlon, a Harvard graduate who served in the NYPD from 1995 to 2011 and wrote about his experiences in the “Cop Diary” articles in The New Yorker and the bestselling memoir Blue Blood. In 2018 Conlon returned to the NYPD as a communications director.

Ed Conlon

Chuck Wexler: You've got a very interesting background. Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in law enforcement and writing.

Ed Conlon: I came from a police family. My father was an FBI agent, briefly NYPD, and his brother was NYPD for over 30 years. I always wanted to be a writer, but when I got out of school, I didn’t really have anything to say and didn't know how to make a living by writing. I kind of stumbled into a criminal justice job early on. I have a cousin who's a nun and she had a friend, a Jesuit priest, who interviewed people in an alternative-to-incarceration program. I wound up interviewing people too. So I got immersed in the system; I enjoyed it.

The first story I wrote came about because a good friend from high school, who was a transit cop, said, I bet you couldn’t ride with me for six weeks without punching somebody in the face because people can be really crazy on the subway. I took him up on the offer and rode around with him and I didn’t punch anybody in the face. But I decided to write about it, and that was the first magazine piece I wrote. I wound up writing city stories, crime stories, cop stories.

Wexler: “Talk to Me” will eventually have 27 episodes. Why did you decide to do a podcast series focusing on hostage negotiations?

Ed Conlon: It’s one of the NYPD’s unique contributions to law enforcement and a story I’ve been interested in for a long time. The last story I wrote before I went into the police academy was on hostage negotiations.

I retired from the NYPD in 2011 but they brought me back in 2018 and made this great job for me as kind of a writer in residence. I was writing, basically, magazine features that went on the website, on topics like the murder of [NYPD officers] Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie in the early ‘70s and the last high constable of New York City in the 19th century. They were fun stories but nobody was reading them. People don’t go to a government website for long-form nonfiction; they’re looking for things like civil service information and road closings. Podcasting is a great way of telling a story; you’re going to reach more people and they are going to be more engaged.

Wexler: The three incidents that are the focus of the early episodes were really influential. Let’s talk first about the Attica prison takeover in 1971. Why was Attica so significant?

Conlon: Attica was one of the big incidents that led the NYPD to decide that we have to have a systematic approach to hostage crises. Everybody had just kind of winged it before: you try to talk, but maybe you get fed up and rush in, and maybe it works well and maybe it doesn't. Everything was improvisation.

There were quite a few jail riots in New York City at the time, but Attica was on a much, much bigger scale. So they started to look at what happened there and said, We have to figure out the right way to do this. At Attica they just did about everything wrong.

Attica inmates speaking with negotiators stand behind bars in a corridor. Source: New York State Archives/AP Wirephoto

When 1,200 inmates took over the prison, two people were intermediaries and then 30 people were intermediaries. The state superintendent of corrections initially was negotiating, and he was the right guy to negotiate. You don’t bring in the governor. You don’t bring in a celebrity. You need a credible representative of authority but not the absolute boss, because sometimes you want to stall — you want to say, Listen, I gotta check with my boss and see if it’s okay.

Wexler: The inmates wanted Governor Rockefeller to come and he didn't come. People just didn't know who should negotiate or how they should handle the situation. Important lessons came out of Attica, didn't they?

Conlon: Yes, but they came out really slowly. Our notion of Attica today is not what it was in the early ‘70s. Clearly it was a mess. The large majority of the hostages and inmates who died were killed during the retaking of the prison. The urgent lesson from Attica was that you do not have to go in unless you really have to go in. And they didn’t have to go in.

Wexler: Attica was followed in 1972 by the hostage situation at the Munich Olympics. Why was Munich so important?

Conlon: Munich was the biggest failure of the police in dealing with a hostage situation that you could imagine. The German officials had some success in bargaining; the Black September terrorists broke in about 5 in the morning and were going to start shooting people at noon, but the Germans managed to get them not to. The Germans couldn’t deliver anything because Black September’s argument was with the Israelis, who weren’t going to agree to any concessions, but the negotiation was successful on its own terms because it bought time. Nobody got killed through the afternoon and into the evening, until they moved the whole show out of the Olympic Village to the military airport, where the Germans said — untruthfully — that a plane was waiting to take all of them to Cairo.

A hooded member of the Black September faction stands on an Olympic Village balcony. Source: AP Wirephoto

The Egyptian government wasn’t going to let that happen, so there was going to be a tactical ending to the story. But the Germans didn’t have a SWAT team. They just had five cops, which was far too few, and these guys were not specially trained. They didn’t have radios so there was no way of communicating with them; they didn’t have scopes; they didn’t have anything. So they stationed these five very brave cops around where the plane was supposed to take off. And one of them was killed in the gunfight, another was shot, and all the hostages. And some of the terrorists were killed as well. It was just an absolute mess.

Wexler: Also in 1972 there was an attempted bank robbery in Brooklyn, which a few years later was made into the movie “Dog Day Afternoon.” Why was that significant?

Conlon: Once that movie came out in ‘75, it seemed that everybody who would take a hostage had seen it, and the movie ends with one of the hostage takers being killed. This made it harder for our detectives to negotiate because they had to convince the hostage taker that this wasn’t going to end like the movie did.

Inspired by the botched 1972 robbery, “Dog Day Afternoon” was nominated for six Academy Awards and took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Source: Warner Bros.

Wexler: After Munich, the NYPD chief Simon Eisdorfer comes in and says, we can’t improvise in these kinds of situations. A young detective and psychologist from NYPD named Harvey Schlossberg played a key role in NYPD’s hostage negotiation program. How did Harvey get involved in the program?

Conlon: That’s one of the very lucky accidents in how this came to be. Harvey Schlossberg was a patrolman in 1971. A new police commissioner was looking through personnel files and saw a Patrolman Schlossberg assigned to the Accident Investigation Section as a Ph.D. He thought it was a misprint. Harvey was a clinical psychologist, but he kept his careers completely separate. He did not expect to be made the department psychologist, but that’s what the commissioner made him once he noticed he had this degree.

That was in December 1971. In September 1972, Chief Simon Eisdorfer said that we have to come up with a plan for hostage situations and I guess we should have a psychologist — and hey, there’s the guy!

Wexler: In that period, the general attitude among police toward hostage situations was, Let’s go in and get those guys. Harvey Schlossberg had to get the NYPD to think completely differently. Wasn’t that a huge challenge?

Conlon: It was enormous, because we’re supposed to take control when we respond to threats by overpowering those threats. And Harvey was just starting from scratch. He’s saying, what do we think we're dealing with in emotional terms? We’re dealing with frustration because somebody’s not getting what they want. Most hostage takers don’t intend to take hostages; they want to rob a bank but they get caught and think this is the way out. But they also enjoy the attention — this usually insignificant person becomes very dominant, and he enjoys that even though he doesn’t want the situation.

And finally, there’s anxiety. Harvey said that with fear, you’re afraid of something specific, but anxiety is free floating, you’re just sort of afraid of everything. And he said, what cops have to do in this situation is turn that anxiety into fear, by making the negotiator the object of that anxiety.

Wexler: As an MIT student interning at the Boston Police Department in the early ‘70s, I helped arrange for Harvey to come and teach selected Boston police officers to be negotiators. I went through the training myself, and one part of the training was managing anxiety, just as you said. If a hostage taker wasn’t cooperating, you might move in the SWAT team to raise their anxiety. If they did something for you, you might pull the SWAT team back. Is that the kind of thinking that went on?

Conlon: Yes. The key insight in reducing that anxiety is that time almost always is on your side. The hostage taker is living this paranoid nightmare, thinking everybody’s trying to kill him, but once a bond forms between the negotiator and the hostage taker and you’re making bargains — like, he lets one person out and then you send in some food — he realizes you’re not trying to kill him and you can do business then. He realizes he has more choices than he thought an hour ago.

Wexler: In the podcast episode on “Dog Day Afternoon,” when they're dealing with these bank robbers, at one point an FBI agent sees a priest and asks the priest to take his confession. Then he says, Now I feel like I can do what I have to do. That was fascinating.

Conlon: The cops are going through the same thing emotionally as the hostage taker. They’re feeling fear and anxiety; they’re frustrated; they’re conflicted; they want it over right now. But you know that waiting is the way to go. There are hostage negotiators who have had heart attacks and all kinds of problems after the fact due to the stress of the situation.

Wexler: This was a revolution in NYPD thinking in the ‘70s, but the basic lesson of slowing things down has become very relevant in policing today in terms of dealing with use of force.

Conlon: Yes, but it took ages for the broader lessons to be applied. We only started doing de-escalation training in 2014.

Wexler: Do you have any final thoughts on the importance of this podcast series and what policing can take away from it?

Conlon: It’s so interesting to see how ideas become institutional realities. It was by no means a sure thing that this would; there’s been a million pilot programs that are very well designed but are sitting in a filing cabinet somewhere. And Harvey didn’t know how often it would work — two out of three times, four out of five, 99 out of 100? They were surprised by their own success. And it can work not just in hostage situations, but also in a much wider set of circumstances that cops deal with every day. If you de-escalate, you calm people down; you can lower the temperature and come to a better resolution.

The training that I and others in the Boston Police Department received from Harvey left a lasting impression on me. Years later, when we at PERF were designing our ICAT training program, I remember discussing with Bill Bratton — who’d also gone through that training— those five days we spent with Harvey and how the principles of negotiation could be taught to patrol. 

Have a great Thanksgiving and thank you for all you do. It makes a difference and is much appreciated.