Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. THE BONE CHAMBER is her latest international thriller about an FBI forensic artist. Her first thriller, FACE OF A KILLER, received a starred review from Library Journal. She is the author of four previous novels. View the video trailer at her website at: www.robinburcell.com/ Or on Facebook and Twitter.
"You were trained as a hostage negotiator. In your experience, is there one technique for this that is more successful than others, or is it always a case-by-case basis? Did you feel that you were at a disadvantage—or an advantage—as a woman in this role?"
Hostage negotiation is always a case-by-case basis. Each situation is unique. By far, the best skill for a negotiator is to be able to think on your feet, being able to use your voice to calm someone if he is agitated, or convince him to cooperate. You have to be able to “read” the person you are negotiating with, and often have to change directions midstream, never knowing what might set off the person. Most cops have this skill to begin with, and use it on a daily basis. The hostage negotiator has been trained even further.
As far as being a woman and a negotiator, in my opinion, women tend to have a calming influence—unless you are unlucky enough to be dealing with someone who for whatever reason can’t stand women, and it happens. Since most negotiators work in teams, it’s a matter of switching to the male partner.
I’ve told the following story before, but it was a good case of a face-to-face negotiation that happened in the course of a normal police call of a disturbance. There was no doubt that in this instance, being a woman (and unbeknownst to the bad guy, being a hostage negotiator) was a distinct advantage.
On this occasion, I arrived at a house on a report of an unknown disturbance. My partner and I were talking to a man in his forties, who was upset because he couldn’t make toll calls on his mother’s phone. He broke a mirror and his mother called us. I had pegged the guy at once as being mentally ill, and was on the phone with Mental Health trying to see if he was a current patient (he was) and was making arrangements to bring him in for an emergency evaluation.
I had sized up the guy and, based on his behavior, called for additional back up. My instincts told me we were not getting this guy under control without a fight. My partner (a rookie with just a few months on the job) became frustrated at the man’s “up and down” behavior. Instead of waiting for the additional back up, he reached out to grab the man’s arm to take him into custody, and the man twisted away and whipped out a knife—holding it to his gut, stating that he was going to kill himself. That was my first face-to-face negotiation holding someone at gunpoint. (A suspect with a knife can kill an officer with that knife before the officer ever draws his weapon. It’s extremely dangerous. Lucky for us—and him— the man was not intent on harming us, just himself.) Several times as I negotiated, I felt my finger pull on the trigger as he appeared to be raising the knife, then releasing the trigger as he lowered it. All the time I had to keep my voice calm, and then even more so when he started to get agitated, like when he overheard radio traffic about his call or when he heard the approaching sirens.
Going back to Sophie’s question from yesterday on how this affects an officer, I can offer this as an example, quite simply because almost killing someone can be emotionally draining as well (a position I’ve been in more times than I like to count). A third officer arrived, and we finally got the guy into custody. I put him in the back of my patrol car. About two minutes later, my knees grew weak, and I felt nauseous as the adrenaline left my body. I drove the guy to mental health, came back, and asked to go to lunch. I was turned down, because there was a child abuse case in my beat, and I was assigned to that call. So sometimes, though an officer who is wound tight needs to de-stress, the opportunity doesn’t always present itself.
A day can consist of one bad call after the other. (I was lucky. Calls are dispatched by beat. You might get hammered one day, and ride easy the next. One of my shift partners knew what I’d gone through and volunteered to take the call. True camaraderie.)