Research: Current trends in hostage/crisis negotiation nomenclature and training
Survey results are an important conversation starter around standardization in the field of crisis negotiations
By Dr. R. “Doc” Davis
Whenever people gather to discuss a topic, the communication between those parties is most effective when everyone is speaking the same language. The quote often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, regarding those who speak the same language being “divided by a common tongue” demonstrates how significant the challenges to communication truly are. Thus, nomenclature becomes important when discussing issues where there may be varied definitions for singular terms.
One area where there are differing definitions of terms is hostage/crisis negotiation. Due to this variation, confusion can exist surrounding the titles assigned to hostage/crisis negotiation training and the equivalency of training from one vendor to another.
Further, many police administrations are left without guidance on what the current best practices are regarding eligibility requirements for their negotiators, or how much maintenance training should be conducted by their negotiation teams.
To begin an informed discussion on these and other training issues within the field of negotiation, a national survey was conducted on current standards around the country.
The survey obtained responses from 46 states that included municipal, county and state agencies, ranging in size from less than 25 officers to over 2,500. Negotiation teams represented in the survey ranged from having over 50 negotiators to areas where it was necessary to band together and create regional teams. Participants remained anonymous and completed up to 35 questions hosted through Survey Monkey. Questions ranged from those about agency and team demographics, the nomenclature used to describe the various levels of training; length of training and content; team eligibility and maintenance training issues.
The first nomenclature question regarded the debate between negotiators identifying as being members of either hostage or crisis negotiation teams. Such a simple issue of terminology is seen as important due to the term “hostage” eliciting a host of mental imagery and expectations that have been built through years of Hollywood films and television shows.
According to the FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System (HOBAS), over 90% of critical incidents involve negotiators dealing with people in crisis who are not holding hostages. [1,2] Given this reality, it is no surprise that nearly 70% of responders identified their teams preferring to use the crisis negotiation moniker over that of hostage negotiation.
Similarly, the nomenclature of various negotiation courses becomes important when agencies are forced to evaluate the equivalency of training between various instructional groups.
A prime example of this was an agency in South Florida where their policy mandated that negotiators complete level 1 and 2 prior to being eligible to act as the primary negotiator. This policy was based on the nomenclature used by the Institute of Police Technology and Management (IPTM) where the agency had traditionally sent their personnel for training. After a new training site became available that did not require sending officers out of the agency’s immediate region, the agency had difficulty with its policy. This was due to the site offering classes labeled as basic and advanced negotiations and not following the IPTM based nomenclature of levels 1, 2, & 3.
In evaluating the responses from the national survey, over 46% indicated that their training utilized the basic and advanced negotiation nomenclature, with an additional 14.5% stating that their training used level 1 and 2 as a single 40 hr class and level 3 as another 40 hrs. This indicated that over 60% of those responding completed a total of 80 hrs training. Only 19% reported attending training that utilized levels 1, 2 and 3 as independent 40 hr classes, totaling 120 hrs of training, and all of these were affiliated with a single training group.
Another group equaling approximately 10% indicated they had completed training through either the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or various state agencies. The FBI offers negotiation as either a 40 hour or an 80 block of instruction, but they are not cumulative in nature. The various state agencies were reported to provide instruction totaling 80 hours.
While there is currently no recognized national standard for hostage/crisis negotiation instruction, the National Council of Negotiation Associations (NCNA) has published a suggested list of topics that should be included in any negotiation curricula. The NCNA is widely regarded as representing the industry standard as evidenced by its membership consisting of most of the organized state associations of hostage/crisis negotiators. The current survey indicated that all of the respondents’ training, whether they were in the 80 hr or 120 hr group, was in compliance the NCNA’s curricula recommendations.
In addition to the lack of a national standard regarding training curricula, there is also no standard regarding specific requirements for eligibility to join a negotiation team.
When considering how experienced an officer should be prior to being eligible to join a negotiation team responses indicated that over 88% required three years or less as an officer (see Figure 1). Specifically, 26% required three years, 37% two years, 25% required a single year of experience and less than 9% required 5 years or more. The length of time served as a law enforcement professional was not the only factor to be considered for eligibility.
Among the other requisite issues considered for inclusion on negotiation teams, was the consideration of specific training officers had already completed prior to applying to join negotiation teams. Basic negotiations and crisis intervention training ranked the highest with 65% and 44% respectively. Other factors considered for inclusion on teams included the successful completion of an interview process (84%), frequently involving roleplay scenarios, scores on performance evaluations (35%) and reviews of applicants’ disciplinary files (44%).
In addition to the previous eligibility requirements, over 43% of respondents stated that their teams allowed specific non-sworn members to join their negotiation teams, with psychologists (30%) and dispatchers (12%) forming the largest groups.
Of the respondents who advised that they allowed non-sworn members to join their teams, only 18% of responders allowed non-sworn members to act as the primary negotiator. Among those that allowed non-sworn members to act as primary, the highest response rate was for dispatchers (14.5%), followed by psychologists (6%).
Ongoing training is a must for any perishable skill, such as the communication skills used in crisis intervention and negotiation. As with the previously discussed issues, there is no national standard for ongoing training. The survey sought to address how much maintenance training agencies are conducting..
Approximately 56% of agencies reporting conducted between 5 and 16 hours of training per month with 41% at the 5 to 8 hr level and 15% at the 9 to 16 hr level (see Figure 2). Surprisingly, over 26% reported conducting two hours of training or less each month, with almost 9% reporting that they do not conduct any maintenance training. Those agencies conducting 17 or more hours per month comprised the smallest group (less than 2%).
It was not unexpected that the group conducting over 17 hours per month of training was the smallest. The number of respondents indicating they conduct less to 2 hours of training per month, with a significant amount stating they do none, suggests that agencies do not see enough value in the training to allow more time for training.
Further investigation into the lack of maintenance training was facilitated by asking participants about the circumstances preventing them from engaging in more training. The most prevalent reasons provided for the lack of training were lack of funding (49%), no available time (48%), or manpower shortages (43%).
In addition to the query regarding maintenance training hours, respondents were also asked how often their negotiation teams train with their tactical counterparts. The largest response group indicated a twice-a-year arrangement (34%). This was closely followed by those who trained together once per year (31%), once per quarter (15%), and never (14%).
A follow-up question asked why their negotiation and tactical teams did not train together more often. The responses demonstrated a similar pattern to those stated for not doing more monthly training. Specifically, respondents cited lack of time (52%), manpower shortages (37%) and funding (16%). Additionally, respondents stated that the combined training was not supported by their tactical teams (34%) or administrations (24%).
Given the current climate surrounding law enforcement, it is perhaps more important now than ever that negotiators present as a unified field of professionals. Toward that end, the results of this study provide a glimpse into the current trends in hostage/crisis negotiation training around the country. While this glimpse is limited, it is an important first step in beginning the conversation around standardizing nomenclature and training in the field of crisis negotiations.
The survey also provides guidance for administrations regarding multiple issues for negotiation team eligibility. Such issues were demonstrated to include the quantity of experience necessary, completed training, and the inclusion of both sworn and non-sworn personnel.
Finally, the survey details the current state of maintenance training across the country. Specifically, information was provided regarding the number of hours responding agencies dedicated to training each month, and the amount of cross-training conducted with tactical teams. Additionally, the survey exposed potential reasons that agencies do not make more training available to their teams.
As was discussed in the article, “The dollars and sense of negotiating,” there are many reasons why agencies should place a significant level of importance on their negotiation teams.  Chief among those are society’s expectations regarding law enforcement’s ability to resolve situations with the minimal amount of force necessary, and the potential for liability and injuries associated with tactical interventions. Considering these issues in combination with negotiation’s proven record of successful outcomes, the inherent value of investing in negotiation teams is clearer than ever.
1. Thompson J. (March 5, 2014). "Crisis" or "hostage" negotiation? The distinction between two important terms. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
2. Vecchi GM, Van Hasselt VB, Romano SJ. (2005). Crisis (hostage) negotiation: Current strategies and issues in high-risk conflict resolution. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10:533-551.
3. Davis R, Maxwell J. (Winter 2018). The dollars and sense of negotiating. The Tactical Edge, 36(1), 52-56.
About the author
Dr. R. “Doc” Davis a former Navy Corpsman who served with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. He is also a 20-year veteran of law enforcement, having retired from the Boynton Beach Police Department in Florida, where he built and commanded the agency’s hostage negotiation and critical incident stress management programs. Dr. Davis’ degree is in psychology and his research interests focus on the areas of crisis intervention, hostage negotiation, human stress responses and autism.