Police negotiators are black belts in dialog

Sometimes talk is cheap, but when a police negotiator is involved, talk can quickly become priceless

Sun Tzu said that “to subdue without fighting is the acme of skill.” These words could very well be the mantra of the modern-day law enforcement crisis negotiator. Subduing without violence is most certainly the goal of the negotiator, but confrontations don’t necessarily mean that “negotiations failed.”

Tale of Two Negotiations

Let’s start with two real-life scenarios. In separate situations, two different negotiators connected with their suspects. In one case, the suspect had shot and seriously wounded a police officer and was barricaded. In the second situation, the suspect had shot a neighbor and was barricaded in a house, where he lived with his deceased mother, who he kept in a freezer. Both armed suspects refused to surrender to the police.

In both situations, the exhausted suspects came to trust their negotiators. Breaks in the negotiations were arranged to allow for the suspects to take “a nap.” The suspects actually took those naps, which eventually lead to their capture.

In the case of the suspect who shot an officer, the commander directed an entry team to take deliberate action. They entered and successfully took the sleeping suspect into custody after a brief struggle. In the case of the suspect with a frozen mother, the team commander allowed the suspect to sleep after the suspect told the officers he would surrender after the nap.

These cases were both successfully resolved. This success was facilitated by excellent negotiators who were so good that they convinced dangerous, armed, and barricaded gunmen to lay down their weapons and... take... a nap? Wow!

Sun Tzu is also credited with saying, “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.” A tactical team should have the opportunity to expertly apply any level of force on every call-out. One invaluable step on every force option guide is dialog. Negotiators are the black belts of dialog. When negotiators seize the opportunity to create and prolong the discussion — suspects who are talking are usually not shooting — they also engage three other D’s: Delay, Distract, and Detect.


At any crisis where armed individuals are refusing to surrender — whether it is in a hostage situation after a botched robbery attempt or an estranged husband who is terrorizing his family with a firearm — negotiators are an important element of any coordinated team response.

Negotiators give the tactical team time to contain the problem and establish a command post. They also allow the team time to prepare for emergency action or to develop and sometimes execute a deliberate action plan.

While the negotiators are talking with the volatile offender, they’re delaying the suspect’s next act of violence. Even in the case where the negotiator senses that the suspect is not going to allow for a developed rapport, the act of negotiating creates time for the tactical team to stage and formulate a plan.


The negotiators also create an excellent distraction. They distract the suspect from their hostages. They sometimes distract the suspect from the rage that is driving them to do others harm. They often distract them away from thoughts of self-destruction. They also distract the suspect from the operations of the tactical team.


Many negotiators become the main witness at trials because of the information gathered in these conversations. Clearly, their main goal is not to make a case against the person on the other side of the line, but they usually find themselves to be the officer who has spoken with the suspect the longest.

By empathetically listening, negotiators will often hear confessions to past crimes and motives for their current actions. They will also find out some of the reasons the suspect wants to survive the day. This information might be useful to effectively resolve this incident. The more often a negotiator talks to a suspect who is suicidal or homicidal, the better they will be at moving suspects away from their threats and beyond their deadlines.

Resolving the Crisis

There have been many examples where skilled negotiators have transformed armed, barricaded suspects from threatening beasts into momentary soul-mates. When it happens, it is a wonder to behold and many lives are saved.

In every confrontation, suspects can fight, flee, posture, or submit. In the beginning moments of the standoff, the suspect has not chosen the direction they wish to take. Therefore, the ultimate goal of the negotiator is to ease them patiently toward submission.

Emergency Action

There may be a time when a negotiator will find themselves unable to stop a violent suspect from causing harm. The suspect might refuse the negotiator’s efforts to develop a rapport. Try as they might, the negotiator will realize that a hostage’s life is in danger.

Then it will happen. They will hear the sudden explosion of the distractive device, the shouts, “Police! Drop your weapon!” and occasionally shots, “All clear, shots fired, the suspect is down. We will need EMS. We’re OK.”

Any negotiator who has experienced this should NOT feel like they failed as a negotiator. Their time with the suspect most likely showed a sincere effort to create a peaceful resolution. If they could not convince the suspect to curb his or her violence, it’s safe to say it was not going to be a peaceful surrender.

The negotiator’s extended dialog should be evidence of the fact that the suspect was an imminent threat to the hostages. This will allow the tactical commander to make a sound decision based on real-time intelligence.

Joint Operations, Joint Training

Many crisis negotiating teams train separately from tactical teams, but since operations sometimes require working in the field together, it’s also important that they train together. There is a great deal of audio and video technology available that can be used to enhance tactical team operations and aid in negotiation. There are incredible benefits to cross-training some tactical team operators as negotiators, and the communications skills offered in crisis negotiation training can be applied on a daily basis. By the same token, it allows for an even more flexible response to train some negotiators in basic SWAT.

Sometimes, talk is not cheap. In fact, when a negotiator is involved in a dialog with an armed and dangerous suspect threatening innocents, talk could be priceless.

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