Psychologists as Crisis Negotiators?

By Thomas J. Fagan, Ph.D.
February 6, 2016 - Last updated: February 24, 2016

Psychologists as crisis negotiators?Should psychologists serve as critical incident negotiators for law enforcement agencies? The short answer to this question is no. There are two basic reasons for this answer.

First, in the negotiation process it is always good for the negotiator to start out in as neutral a position as possible from the perpetrator’s perspective. Using a psychologist as a negotiator may lead the perpetrator to think that the authorities believe that he or she is “crazy” and in need of psychological help. These thoughts may further exacerbate an already difficult situation.

Second, negotiation is not therapy. It is sometimes difficult for psychologists to make the transition in thinking from a therapeutic intervention where the ultimate goal is relief of suffering and positive growth to a crisis negotiation situation where the primary goal is the safe release of hostages and the surrender of the perpetrator in as speedy a fashion as possible.

Critical incidents may end with the use of force and possible perpetrator death. This is rarely the outcome in therapy. Participating fully in the negotiation process might also mean sharing information gleaned from the negotiation process (i.e., violating confidentiality) to assist tactical personnel in assault planning and implementation. Some psychologists might find these tasks difficult and potentially unethical.

However, with proper training in law enforcement missions, procedures and protocols, there are several possible roles that psychologists could play on crisis negotiation teams. Five are discussed below:

First, psychologists could serve as consultants to the negotiation team during a critical incident and assist team members in gaining a deeper understanding of the perpetrator’s mental health. This could be accomplished by reviewing perpetrator records, interviewing individuals familiar with the perpetrator and/or listening to the actual negotiation process.

Along similar lines, psychologists could develop a profile of the perpetrator that would address such important issues as the perpetrator’s motivation for engaging in a critical incident, his or her propensity toward violence and history of mental health, substance abuse and/or criminal problems.

Second, psychologists could also assist negotiation team members in developing a negotiation strategy tailored to the unique personal needs of the perpetrator. For example, an antisocial individual who takes a hostage in a failed bank robbery may require one strategy, while a distraught ex-husband who kidnaps his ex-wife and children may require a very different approach.

Third, negotiators sometimes become embroiled in the minute-by-minute exchanges with the perpetrator and become overly committed to selling one particular strategy at the expense of other viable strategies. A psychologist on the negotiation team may be in a unique position to listen to these exchanges with a more “impartial ear” and offer the negotiator suggestions about which approaches are working and which are failing. Often, negotiators are so close to the situation and personally invested in selling one point of view that they cannot make these simple discriminations.

Fourth,, in reality the negotiation process is filled with mental health principles, strategies and skills. Well-trained psychologists who are mindful of law enforcement missions, practices and procedures could serve as trainers of crisis negotiators. In this proactive role, they could share psychological information about managing emotionally distraught individuals, implementing de-escalation techniques, managing mentally disturbed individuals, understanding the personality dynamics of individuals most likely to engage in hostage-taking, assessing violence potential, utilizing persuasion techniques, etc. – all with the ultimate goal of making law enforcement officers more effective crisis negotiators.

In addition, psychologists have extensive experience working with groups and could employ these skills by developing effective training exercises that foster a sense of teamwork and cohesion among negotiation team members. They could also develop role-play training scenarios through which negotiation team members could gain invaluable practice. They could also monitor these scenarios and give feedback to team members regarding their performance – all in an effort to train law enforcement officers to be the best negotiators possible.

Lastly, psychologists could play a role in the selection of negotiation team members for law enforcement agencies. Their assessment skills might assist law enforcement agencies in screening out officers who do not possess the personal attributes that are essential to being a successful negotiator.

They might also work with negotiation teams when problems evolve among team members and assist them in smoothing over difficulties. During actual incidents, a psychologist/consultant on the negotiation team could also monitor team members for signs of stress and/or fatigue and make recommendations to the negotiation team leader regarding shift/personnel changes.

In order for psychologists to be effective as consultants to a negotiation team, three characteristics are helpful.

First, they need to accept that they are working for a law enforcement agency whose goals and missions are different from those of most mental health professionals. A knowledge of and acceptance of these differences is essential for psychologists to work effectively with law enforcement personnel.

One way for psychologists to become knowledgeable of these differences is to train routinely with law enforcement negotiators. Participating in these training exercises is also a good way for psychologists to gain credibility with law enforcement officers and to share psychological information informally throughout the training exercise.

Second, while psychologists possess a wealth of mental health information, it is useless if presented in a language unfamiliar to the average person. Therefore, it is essential for psychologists to avoid the use of professional jargon when working with law enforcement personnel.

For psychologists who consult during actual incidents it is essential to provide valuable information in as concise a fashion as possible. For example, most on-scene commanders will want to know if the perpetrator is potentially violent. Although psychologists are trained to do risk assessments and to speak in terms of probabilities of risk under different circumstances, this is hardly the time for a lengthy discourse. Under these circumstances, most on-scene commanders are looking for a simple “yes” or “no.” Brevity and decisiveness are critical and appreciated in these circumstances.

Finally, for psychologists who are used to operating independently or in leadership positions, participating as a member of a negotiation team requires the ability to be a good team player and may, therefore, require some personal adjustments.

As a team member, a psychologist’s contributions may be valuable but not always followed. In fact, they may be overridden in favor of more tactical options.

Psychologists who are unable to accept the idea of “one person – one vote” may become an obstacle to the efficiency of the negotiation team. However, for psychologists who can effectively assume this role, their expertise can be an extreme asset to the negotiation team.

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