Thursday, December 17, 2009

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: Or on Facebook and Twitter.

Kelli writes:

"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.)


Dr. Mary Kennedy said...

Robin, you have nerves of steel! That's a great post, I could feel the adrenaline pumping...

Jen Forbus said...

I agree, Robin, this is a great look at the reality of law enforcement. It's no wonder stress levels can get so high.

Kelli Stanley said...

Absolutely riveting--and terrifying. The stress you guys go through ... unbelievable. Thanks for telling us the story, Robin!

And the knife info is fascinating. Would the knife attacker need to know where to strike in order to actually kill someone before the bullet stopped him?


Shane Gericke said...

Thank you for sharing this story, Robin. I remember that statistic about most cops don't shoot anyone in their entire career. While it may be true, it misses the point completely about the times you go to maximum stress because you might have to do it.

How do you personally decompress afer incidents like this? Music, yoga, writing, target practice? Anything you can share with us?

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Let the record show that this is the LAST time I ever complain about technical writing or the stresses of publishing. Or at least it ought to be.

Terrifying story, wonderfully told.

Thanks, Robin!

Anonymous said...

The knife attacker need not know anything. A knife can be thrown with such force that it pretty much hits anywhere in your body mass, it can do considerable damage or death.

This guy actually turned and threw it into the couch (which was behind him, and why he survived). The 8" (total length) knife landed in the back cushions, thrown with such force it was buried to the last inch of the hilt. After seeing it there in that couch, I was a true believer. That could have been a body. This guy was very fortunate that we were all well-trained and everything went like clockwork.

For those of you who know anything about shooting, when you are trained to fire, you are trained to pull the trigger just far enough to hear a gentle click. That brings the weapon into single action, and is literally a hairsbreadth away from firing it. Any more pressure past that point, it goes off. Several times during the incident I pulled the trigger to that point and heard the click, then he would lower the knife, and I would release the pressure. All the time I'm talking to him, trying to get him to put it down.

Anonymous said...

As for decompressing, I write. I get to say all the cool things, never make mistakes (unless I need one to work into the plot) and do all the cool things that I would never be able to (or want to) do in real life.

In fact, for me, the first 10 years were very difficult. Once I started writing, it became very cathartic.

That and I drink heavily. (Just kidding.)

Anonymous said...

I've had some of those book-related stressful days. They can be pretty bad, especially when combined with other stressors in your life. The difference between that stress and the stuff from the streets and patrol is that I often get to tell way cooler stories in the bar at writing conferences. ;-)