By Vincent Guastamacchia | September 25, 2015
The criteria for eligibility into the New York City’s elite, Hostage Negotiation Team is incredibly strict. Qualities such as age, demeanor, communication as well as active listening skills all factor into the selection process. This becomes evident when you consider the fact that while there are approximately thirty five thousand uniformed members of the service, there are only one hundred negotiators.
The most important qualification for selection is life experience. The candidate must have endured and successfully overcome a traumatic event in his or her life. This requirement is vital as it allows for a better relationship to the person with whom you are negotiating. The ability to speak from personal experience is a tremendous advantage when forming the initial and on all counts essential bond preceding the connection with the individual in question.
“One thing every negotiator must do before beginning dialogue is clear your mind of all other problems, whatever problems you’ve encountered up until the moment you received the assignment”. These prescient words were the advice provided by Jack Cambria, the commanding officer of the Hostage Negotiation Team during my initial interview. Though relatively experienced at thirty-one years of age, these words and the discipline they required were intimidating. Only after years of time spent in the position of a Hostage Negotiator was I able to fully appreciate how on point his advice was.
At the time of this interview I pondered why Jack would stress this point so vehemently. Upon serious reflection, observation of the “job” and our interaction with the public, did I understand the negativity that surrounds the Department. All of the hate directed towards you, the misery, pain and suffering we deal with on a daily basis, it’s no wonder we often times end up “on edge”. Until you realize how these compounding effects of negative energy have on the human mind and body, you walk blindly through it without hope of this dark environment changing for the better. The attitude of many on the force bares similarity to a trained animal that attacks its master after years of getting lashed. It is understandable that on the rare occasion an officer will lash out after being on the receiving end of a barrage of unpleasantries or repeated disrespectful words and gestures. Jack’s advice applied not only to each negotiation, but also how I chose to approach each day on the job. Every assignment and tour required utilizing the knowledge gained with experience, while not allowing the experiences to effect my perspective on the ultimate goal of public service.
During my initial interview with Jack, I recalled a conversation I had with my stepfather, a retired detective. His words were simple: “The job you’re about to begin is tough, you will be spit at, cursed at, yelled at and even shot at, but remember it’s not personal.” Looking back he was absolutely right, the hate wasn’t directed at me, but rather, the uniform. However, prior to receiving the Hostage Negotiation training, I was taking my interactions with the public personally. I would mentally prepare myself for another day of exactly what my dad said and worse, subconsciously causing me to be on “edge”. Being on edge lead to bad decisions and an unprofessional demeanor with those we were meant to serve and protect.
I had not listened to what my father’s experience had taught him until I saw the correlation to Jack’s advice. I stopped allowing myself to be on edge, yet still managed to remain on guard for my safety. From then on, I saw the negativity for what it was and by not taking it personally, I developed a longer fuse when dealing with emotional situations. This earned me the respect of those with whom I engaged. Eventually the community will begin to understand the authority you were given and that you are only there to help.
Negotiators responsibilities are broader than the general public understands. Not only do we handle the classic “hostage” situations, but also are charged with emotionally disturbed individuals who might harm themselves or others. Under those more common circumstances of the “EDP”, a Negotiator is required to connect with a complete stranger quickly and begin dialogue. We choose our words cautiously and express them in a manner to ensure they are perceived as intended. Foreseeing how the words will be perceived eliminates miscommunication and the potential for the situation to escalate. We humble ourselves as to ensure the tone of our voice along with our physical demeanor soothes the intended recipient. We also consider the circumstances of the situation and try to look at it from the intended recipient’s point of view to effectively communicate and resolve the scenario.
Since there is a negotiation in every encounter between the police and the community, how the exchange starts off significantly determines the outcome. Controlling the level of emotion is equally as important as controlling the situation itself. Remembering that emotions are contagious, I was able to remain calm and didn’t allow people to break my character. Once people see how calm and professional you are they quickly gain respect for you.
Move over Deadliest Catch, now more than ever the job of a Police Officer in the United States is the most dangerous occupation. Every encounter with the community varies given the nature of the job assignment. A 911 call for an elderly man having a heart attack differs materially from a man suspected of possessing a gun. Adrenaline and fear are two major factors that affect attitude and demeanor. These two complete opposite emotions makes your heart race and your pores sweat. Regardless of one’s occupation, in high stress interactions it is imperative to make rational decisions. Additionally, the fight or flight response is inherent in all of us. Police Officers may have to fight the urge to flee regardless of the natural impulse of self-preservation.
Police Officers are generally well trained for the matters that frighten the average citizen. Their profession requires them to run towards danger while others flee. The luxury of time as it pertains to life and death decisions is not afforded to the only profession that has the legal right to use force that may ultimately take life. Providing the most practical psychological training is the least we can do to reduce the escalation of incidents and prevent further loss of life.
It is important to understand that while the job of an officer is incredibly complicated and stressful, it is educational as well. By sheer volume I was afforded many opportunities to practice “Immediate Negotiation”. Jack’s lessons combined with “On the Job” experience, was invaluable training on how to control adrenaline and manage fear in high stress situations.
The art of Immediate Negotiation is a practical approach to diffusing conflict. Once perfected it will earn you the respect necessary to control most situations. Mastering the ability of controlling your emotions, no matter how stretched, is the essential element. By doing so, you diminish the variables to be dealt with and raise the probability of making the correct decision. With each additional party involved in any emotional situation, you inevitably see an exponential increase in the likelihood of a tragic result.
Of all the experience and knowledge I gained in my career with the NYPD, from the first day till my last, the most important lesson I learned was in an interview with Jack Cambria.
This is dedicated to my mentor Jack Cambria and to the men and woman who lost their lives in the line of duty. I only hope these words can help active law enforcement personnel make it through their tour each day as they did mine.