May 29, 2021

How a Detective Revolutionized Our Response to Hostage Situations


Dear PERF members, 

The first thing I noticed was the pinky ring, which was about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. And the accent. If you’re from Boston, like I am, you immediately recognize the New York accent.

His background was unique as well – a police detective and a psychologist with a Ph.D. I always thought detectives and psychologists didn’t get along, but he managed to bridge that divide.

Then he started speaking, and my brain instantly went on “record.” Everything he said was fascinating and made so much sense. More than 40 years later, I can still recite much of what he said during the five days he trained members of the Boston Police Department (myself included) in the then-emerging field of hostage negotiations.

It was the early 1970s, and two important events had been in the news. The first took place at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Eight members of the terrorist group Black September killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team, then kidnapped nine others and held them hostage. The police were unprepared for the attack, and the rescue plan failed. All of the hostages died.

Less than a year later, four robbers entered John and Al’s Sporting Goods in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn to steal guns and ammunition. When the police arrived, a wild, three-hour shootout ensured. One NYPD officer was killed, and two were wounded. The gunmen then took 11 people hostage inside the store.

At this point, a detective named Harvey Schlossberg arrived on scene. He started talking with the gunmen, a conversation that would last two days. In the end, all of the hostages escaped successfully, and the four criminals were apprehended (and later tried and convicted). His actions not only saved lives; they ushered in an entirely new way of thinking about hostage situations.

In Boston, we had been watching the events unfold in Munich and Brooklyn. The world was changing, and the Boston Police Department decided we needed to be prepared should Boston face a similar incident.

Working in the Police Academy at the time, I took on responsibility for organizing our hostage negotiation program. We recruited 10 of the department’s best and brightest to staff the new function and go through training. Two of my best buddies, Detective Paul Carr and a young sergeant named Bill Bratton, were selected. I decided to go through the training with them. 

We had heard about this NYPD Detective Schlossberg, with his social science degree, who was introducing psychology into the response to hostage situations. Up until then, police had pretty much relied on ramming the door and quickly storming the location. The unintended consequence was that the lives of cops and hostages were put at risk in this process. I knew we needed Schlossberg for our training.

Schlossberg was turning everything about hostage situations on its head. He talked about slowing things down, creating a perimeter and containing activity, and most importantly, talking. He emphasized that there should be no rush to resolve the situation. If you have to wait an hour, or a day, or a week to get the hostages released, that’s what you do.

So you reroute traffic around the location, and you start communicating. Not with commands or judgmental assertions, but with open-ended questions and expressions like, “This must be important to you” and “Tell me more.” He called the whole process “dynamic inactivity.”

To Schlossberg, everything was about building trust with the hostage-takers. For the cops, this can be daunting. Imagine convincing cops that they should try to build a relationship with the criminals who may have already killed a police officer.

But you do what you need to do to save lives. If it’s mealtime, you trade a pizza for a hostage. Or a cigarette for another hostage. And so on. You reduce anxiety by telling the bad guys you will pull back the sharp-shooters – and then you follow through on that promise.

Eventually, you get them to slowly realize that the only safe way out it to give up. 

This wasn’t intuitive thinking for a lot of people. When Harvey was building the program, he consulted with the “Who’s Who” of psychologists in New York City.  And he arranged a telephone system so that when a hostage situation happened, Harvey could immediately get these best psychologists on a special phone and ask for their advice.

When the sporting goods store incident was unfolding, Harvey used the system and told the psychologists that hostages were being held at gunpoint. There was a long pause, and incredibly, one of the psychologists said, “Lob in the gas.” Harvey said, “But it’s a wooden structure, and the place will probably catch on fire.” Another long pause, and the psychologist said, “Well, if you do it fast enough, they’ll probably all escape.”

And Harvey thought, “This isn’t the advice I expected from the Who’s Who of psychologists.”

As Harvey spoke at our training session in Boston, he delivered important insights that have stayed with me all these years. One of the most important examples he provided was this type of situation:

A dispatcher gets a call about a man with a gun at a certain address. The police arrive, knock on the door, and a man comes out with a gun in his hand. The officer orders him to drop the  gun, but instead the man raises the gun, and the officer shoots him. When officers examine the weapon, they discover it’s a toy gun. Later, they learn that the dead man was the person who called 9-1-1.

Harvey said there is only one way to explain this behavior: the man clearly wanted the police to shoot him. Why else would someone point a toy gun at an officer? A classic suicide-by-cop situation. I never forgot that story, and years later it would prove instrumental in our work here at PERF.

The whole training session in Boston  was just like that. Everyone sat spellbound, listening to every word Harvey spoke. He was that rare kind of teacher who enriched your life and gave you insights you kept forever. Long after the training was concluded, Paul Carr and I would joke around by saying things like, “This must be important to you,” and “Tell me more.”

Fast-forward 40 years, and I’m in Scotland, soon after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. You probably know that the vast majority of officers in Scotland are not issued firearms. But the country has historically had a serious problem with people carrying knives and other edged weapons. So I was fascinated by how the police were able to get someone to drop a knife, without having a firearm with which to threaten the offender.

What they told us is that instead of rushing the person, officers in Police Scotland slow things down, maintain their distance, and begin talking. And eventually the person gives up, almost always without injury to the cop or the suspect. Sound familiar?

Several months later I returned to Scotland, this time accompanied by about two dozen police chiefs and other leaders from across the United States. I wanted them to see first-hand this approach to dealing with people in crisis who are armed with a knife (or a baseball bat, or a 2-by-4, or a rock, or some other weapon, but not a firearm).

On the last day of the trip, we had a roundtable discussion about what the American police leaders had learned. George Buenik, who was then the Executive Assistant Chief of the Houston Police Department, said, “We’re already doing that.” I asked George what he meant, and he said, “This is exactly how our SWAT team operates.”

Bingo, I got it!  SWAT officers receive special training about how to de-escalate and resolve situations. But I soon realized the challenge: How do we get patrol officers and supervisors to think the way SWAT teams and hostage negotiators do?

So when I got back in the U.S., I went to see that young sergeant from Boston, who by now had become the Police Commissioner of New York. I told Bill Bratton about my experience in Scotland, and asked him, “Do you remember the hostage negotiation training with Harvey Schlossberg?  Doesn’t this sound similar?”

Of course, Bill remembered Harvey Schlossberg and the training. I told Bill that I wanted to figure out a way to bring Schlossberg’s principles to beat cops, to help them defuse the tense situations that most officers encounter on a regular basis.  I said we wanted to spend several days with NYPD’s elite Emergency Service Unit, studying their techniques and learning from their experiences. I knew that years earlier, Schlossberg worked alongside the ESU as a negotiator, and his thinking was part of what had made the unit so successful.

Eventually, PERF combined these experiences with insights of officers from across the country to create our ICAT training program: Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics. ICAT is grounded in the principles that Harvey Schlossberg practiced and taught back in the 1970s – but applied to patrol officers in the 21st century.

And his thinking continues to influence ICAT as it grows and develops. Using Harvey’s early observations about suicide-by-cop incidents, PERF developed a suicide-by-cop protocol and incorporated it into the ICAT curriculum. I had never forgotten what Harvey said about suicide by cop, but it wasn’t until we watched countless videos of actual suicide-by-cop incidents that we realized that with the proper training, these situations can have different outcomes. Video made the difference by showing us how often persons in crisis walk toward a police officer saying, “Shoot me, shoot me.” And I thought of what Harvey had said about that scenario back in Boston.

Harvey Schlossberg died last week at the age of 85. When I first met him four decades ago, I couldn’t have known what I know today: that his influence on policing, and on me personally, would be so profound and long-lasting.  He was simply one of the most insightful and courageous people I have ever known.

Rest in peace, Harvey. You saved a lot of lives over the years, and a lot of police careers as well.

To all our PERF members, I wish you a good Memorial Day weekend.