Lessons learned from the hostage incident at Discovery Channel

The first words the hostage negotiators heard were, "I have a bomb strapped to my chest and I’m ready to die!" What would you do?

On September 1, 2010 at approximately 1300 hours, James J. Lee entered the discovery building located in Silver Spring, Maryland and took three hostages at gunpoint. Lee also appeared to have a bomb strapped to his chest. The responsibility to resolve this matter fell upon the Montgomery County Police Department’s hostage negotiation and tactical teams. A source close to this incident told Police1, “This was vastly different than a normal call out” and provided me with details that afforded lessons that each of us should be cognizant of in the event we are faced with a similar circumstance.

The Montgomery County Police Department has a well-trained hostage negotiation team, and as is with most hostage negotiation teams, their typical callout involves suicidal subjects, barricaded individuals, or people with open warrants refusing to come out. On this day they found themselves confronted with the unusual circumstance of an actual hostage taking incident in a building where a day care center held approximately 100 children and about 1500 other workers. “I have a bomb strapped to my chest and I’m ready to die!” These were the first words the highly agitated Lee said to negotiators.

In a “typical” callout, hostage negotiators are accustomed to having to call a location repeatedly — often over a long period of time — before the suspect picks up the phone. This can go on for quite a while and even once they answer, communications are usually broken until a good rapport is established between the suspect and the negotiator. In this case, Lee picked up the phone immediately and was willing to talk. In fact, prior to speaking with police, he spoke to a representative from NBC who called the Discovery Channel lobby telephone, which Lee picked up. Once on the phone with police, Lee was angry and highly emotional.

A man upset with the Discovery Channel network's programming took three people hostage at the company's headquarters. All three hostages escaped safely, but the gunman left the building on a slab.
A man upset with the Discovery Channel network's programming took three people hostage at the company's headquarters. All three hostages escaped safely, but the gunman left the building on a slab. (AP Photo)

Disgusting Human Babies
Negotiators tried to determine what his demands were. Lee had written a short manifesto on his website vehemently expressing his distaste for the human race particularly, “disgusting human babies.” He also expressed his opposition to the Discovery Channel’s television programming in favor of — as well as society’s orientation toward — the preservation and celebration of the lives of animals. Lee would not initially share his demands with the negotiators, directing them to his website instead.

Lee’s dislike of humans made him unique from a negotiator’s perspective. Normally, a negotiator would try to humanize the hostages and appeal to the hostage takers sense of compassion, empathy or conscience. One tactic a negotiator might use is to ask a hostage taker to consider that one or more of the hostages might have children — children who need them — in an effort to gain a hostages’ release. In this case, the fact that a hostage might have children was part of the problem and only bolstered his agenda. Compassion and empathy were not going to allow negotiators to positively influence Lee.

Another challenge faced by the hostage negotiation team was intelligence gathering. Few people knew much about Lee or his background. Negotiators knew his father lived in Potomac (Md.) and he’d protested at the Discovery Channel building before. They knew he’d been arrested in February 2008 for disorderly conduct related to a protest but initially they knew little about where he was living at the time of this incident, as he was believed to be homeless. They knew little about his family background, his employment status or his likes and dislikes. When negotiators tried to connect with him by mentioning his father, Lee denied that his father lived in Potomac and used this opportunity to insult the negotiators, questioned their sources of information, and called into question their credibility.

Although it was a good sign that Lee was talking with negotiators, little progress was being made. Lee had not provided many immediate demands nor had he given a timeline for action. He did, however, make it clear that he was willing to die and kill hostages. Lee was offered numerous suggestions and opportunities to release the hostages and surrender but he refused. In an effort to help the negotiators and the negotiation process, Discovery Channel Executives agreed to speak with Lee in the hopes that might make him feel as though the Discovery Channel was willing to listen to him. Negotiators used this as a bargaining chip in their effort to get Lee to release the hostages. Lee, who frustratingly told negotiators, “I’m out of resources and at the end of my rope!” refused to release even one hostage and questioned the sincerity of the offer by Discovery executives.

Throughout the negotiations Lee remained agitated. He acknowledged the presence of other specialized units on the scene in response to his hostage taking. Although he said he couldn’t see them, he acknowledged the presence of the snipers, the tactical teams and the bomb squad. Approximately four hours into the negotiation process, the hostages brought this incident to a sudden and unexpected close. While Lee was on the phone with negotiators, the hostages seized the opportunity to make their escape. As they were escaping, Lee was seen pointing his handgun in the direction of the hostages, which led to the tactical resolution which ended his life.

There was nothing “typical” about this incident and it proved to be very challenging for the negotiators, the tactical teams, the bomb squad, the patrol officers and the command staff. Out of these unfortunate circumstances come some valuable lessons about what worked, what didn’t work and some things to always remember.

What Worked
In the early stages of this incident unfolding a decision was made to evacuate the building, particularly the daycare center. Employees at the Discovery Channel Building had previously performed evacuation drills and this worked favorably in this case. Most of the people exited the building calmly and orderly despite the stressful circumstances. This went a long way in minimizing further potential victimization.

Training is something else that worked well in this incident. Negotiators and tactical teams train for genuine hostage taking incidents but are rarely faced with them. In this case the negotiators knew what to do; they stuck to the basics. Even though the negotiators were frustrated by Lee’s highly agitated emotions they used active listening skills as Lee spewed his words of hatred towards the human race. The negotiators used emotional labeling in an effort to let Lee know they understood his feelings and affirmed them. They used minimal encouragers to keep Lee talking to them. They remained calm in the face of Lee yelling and insulting them. They continued to try to humanize the hostages to Lee and even though he was not receptive they stayed “on message.” They took every opportunity to suggest releasing the hostages and affect his surrender.

In his March 2010 Police1 article entitled, Police Negotiators Are Black Belts in Dialog, Lt. Dan Marcou describes the advantages of “Delay” and “Distraction” when negotiators try to establish a prolonged dialog with a hostage taker. These were two highly effective tactics employed by the negotiators in this case. By keeping Lee talking, the negotiators were able to delay any harm to the hostages. Delaying that immediate threat allowed the tactical teams, the bomb squad, and other support staff to set up in their most advantageous positions. It also provided the necessary opportunity for officers to evacuate the building and minimize the possibility of additional victims.

Distraction was the tactic that saved the day. Due to his prolonged dialog with negotiators, Lee was briefly distracted from the hostages. The hostages were intuitive enough to recognize this and seized the opportunity to make their escape. This distraction, combined with Lee’s being surprised by their escape, afforded the tactical team, who to their tremendous credit was at full ready, the opportunity to eliminate the threat.

What Didn’t Work
In the book, Crisis Negotiations, authors McMains and Mullins site a 1985 study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation describing the characteristics of a negotiable incident. The first characteristic is, “There must be a need to live on the part of the hostage taker.” And further, “Without the need to live, the negotiators bottom line is removed.” In this incident, Lee made it clear from his first contact with negotiators that he was willing to die. This fact combined with Lee’s agitated and highly emotional state set the tone for the remainder of the negotiations leaving negotiators feeling as though they were gaining very little traction throughout the process.

In a typical hostage taking incident, the hostages represent leverage to the hostage taker as insurance that his/their demands will be met. Lee seemed more intent on using the hostages as examples of what, in his mind, was wrong with the human race and less intent on using them as leverage to have his demands met. This dramatically affected the negotiators ability to appeal to the hostage takers’ sense of compassion or empathy toward his hostages. Lee’s position greatly diminished potential bargaining opportunities as he remained staunch throughout the negotiations and negotiators were challenged to try and find their “in” with him.

Successful negotiations are often driven by good intelligence gathering and as these crisis incidents unfold it is often difficult to obtain accurate and relevant intelligence. In this case, negotiators were confronted with several unknowns. Was Lee acting alone? Were there additional hostages being held elsewhere? Were there other bombs besides those strapped to Lee’s chest? Despite their best efforts negotiators were unable to gather a lot of pertinent information about Lee so they had to act upon what they knew at the time.

As mentioned, Lee challenged the accuracy of some of what was gathered. This provided him fodder to insult the police, question their credibility and it likely furthered his sense of empowerment. All of this stemmed from a piece of “non-critical” intelligence negotiators used to try and “connect” with Lee but instead granted him the opportunity to continue to challenge the negotiation process. This aspect of the negotiations highlights for us the importance of veracity when obtaining, sharing or acting upon intelligence information.

Much of what didn’t work in this case was James Lee himself. He seemed unwilling to be flexible, compromise, or exercise any compassion or empathy toward the hostages. When negotiators attempted to make any concession in his favor or in direct response to a demand, Lee would make a modification so that throughout these negotiations, there was no opportunity to satisfy him.

None of us know what was going through the mind of James Lee. It is possible that he genuinely felt he was out of resources and at the end of his rope. He stated clearly that he was prepared to die. One cannot help but question if this whole scenario was set up by Lee to end at some point precisely as it did, suicide by cop.

Always Remember
It is sometimes a hard pill to swallow for a negotiator when a suspect is actively talking but an incident ultimately ends tactically. Some would argue, because the hostages weren’t released and Lee was killed, negotiations failed. Quite the opposite is true. In circumstances such as these, negotiators need to look for “the win” and remind themselves of their ultimate purpose.

Despite the frustrating fact that the negotiators did not feel much traction, despite the fact they were confronted with an emotionally inflexible hostage taker, the fact that advantageous intelligence was not pouring in to the command center, or the fact that hostages, “real hostages” lives were at stake, the negotiators didn’t give up. They triumphed over adversity and continued to try new avenues, new approaches and different techniques and strategies until the incident came to its surprising but successful conclusion.

The “win” for all who participated in this incident — with the exception of James Lee of course — is the fact that the hostages, the officers, and all occupants of the Discovery Channel Building went home safely.

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