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Responding to hostage incidents

The word Attica still reverberates with meaning in the world of corrections more than three and a half decades after the country’s most infamous prison hostage incident. Though Attica was a bellwether event, there have been several other significant hostage incidents since 1971 that show the hazardous nature of a career for those who secure men behind bars.

The New Mexico State Penitentiary in 1980 was brutal and bloody. The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility riot at Lucasville in 1993 resulted in the murder of a guard. The St. Martin Parish Jail in Louisiana in 1999 was unorthodox because detainees, not prisoners, were the hostage-takers. And the Arizona State Prison at Buckeye in 2004 was a protracted episode that taught many valuable lessons.

This list is certainly not complete. But these incidents are all significant either for their length, size or degree of violence associated with them.


In each one of these incidents, SWAT teams or major response forces were called in; after lengthy negotiations, and some cases overt tactics, they were ended. All three also had significant command and control issues.

But there have been many small scale hostage incidents that never rose to the level of notoriety as the ones above. These did not last weeks or even days. Some did not even last for hours, but were ended in a matter of minutes. These are the incidents that you are most likely to encounter. They are every corrections supervisor’s worst nightmare and that is one reason why hostage problems are always included as part of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Custody Incident Command School: What do you do before your version of SWAT and your Crisis Negotiation Team arrives? And are you prepared to go tactical in those first few volatile minutes should the situation escalate or the opportunity present itself?

A discussion of why hostage incidents occur and who hostage takers are is an article in and of itself. Suffice it to say that almost any kind of inmate can and have been hostage-takers. Two of the most recent hostage incidents in Los Angeles County jails involved a suspect in jail for domestic violence and another one looking at a two year prison sentence for burglary. Neither were hardcore criminals and neither had any gang affiliations. The only common denominator between them was that both were emotionally disturbed.

As was already noted, the St. Martin Parish Jail hostage takers were not even inmates at all. They were Federal detainees. The St. Martin incident was pre-planned. The LA County jail incidents were not. In St. Martin Parish, sworn staff members were taken hostage. In LA, a female nurse and a female civilian cook were the hostages. The St. Martin incident went on for six days and made national news. Both of the incidents in Los Angeles were over in minutes and did not make it to the press.

Hopefully, your jail or prison has a policy and plan for dealing with hostage situations and you train on that plan. If you don’t, you are already at a significant disadvantage and any incident commander who faces a hostage situation against this uncertainty and ambiguity is in trouble. A succinct well stated policy should provide command guidance and clearly state the two fundamental and related principles that need to be clearly understood in any tactical incident. The first is End State.

End State
What do you want the situation to look like when operations conclude? An end state must be attainable and it must be specific enough to be visualized because it provides the beginning for your common operational picture. A corollary principle to “End State” is “Commander’s Intent.” This is a clear and concise articulation of the purpose behind one or more tasks assigned to your subordinates.

“Commander’s Intent” does three things. It provides the planning guidance for developing your plans. It describes the commander’s rationale and assumptions about the incident. And it also permits subordinates to use their initiative to exploit opportunities that may arise. This last component is critical to free your incident commanders and team leaders to take action should a window of opportunity present itself.

The “End State” in hostage incidents may vary slightly, but in almost all incidents it is the rescue of the hostages and the apprehension of the hostage takers. The Commander’s Intent how to accomplish this may differ dramatically, however. The direction for dealing with hostage incidents in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Departments jails was clearly laid out in a memo written by the Division Chief in 1995. This memo has held the weight of policy ever since. The End State is clearly stated:

In any hostage situation, the safe release of the hostage is our primary objective. . . No consideration shall be given to allow an inmate holding a Department employee hostage to escape under any circumstances.

Though this memo also calls for a SWAT response and the dispatching of a crisis negotiation team, incident commanders are told that they need to be ready to go tactical prior to the arrival of these resources should the situation change or the opportunity present itself. The Commander’s Intent for dealing for implementing a tactical rescue should the hostage be assaulted or an opportunity present itself prior to the arrival of SWAT is stated near the end of the memo:

The decision to implement a tactical plan is the most critical decision the Incident Commander will make. The decision to implement any tactical plan should be founded on the Incident Commander’s belief that an undue loss of life will be prevented or there is an imminent threat of great bodily injury to the hostage. However, when personnel are confronted with a situation of a hostage being taken and an opportunity of tactical advantage exists, the Incident Commander should not be constrained from seizing that tactical advantage and implementing a tactical rescue.

The most important thing that prison and jail administrators can do is empower their incident commanders with solid direction prior to a hostage incident. It is a recipe for disaster when policy and command and control issues are being decided on the fly. Incident commanders should know if they can employ lethal force. This is rarely an issue in prisons but can be a significant one in jails. They should also know that they have the authority to make the quick decisions necessary to implement a tactical plan. In all the hostage incidents mentioned at the top of this article, those issues were not resolved until hours or days into the event.

If the command and control issues are resolved and a clear End State is understood, it falls on the incident commanders to prepare a plan based on the circumstances. A good tool to start an assessment of the situation is with the acronym SWOT. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

“Strengths and Weaknesses” is inward looking. One of your strengths may be an armory well stocked with less-lethal weapons and tactical response gear. A weakness may be that you don’t know which members of your staff are adequately trained in the use of these tools to give you the confidence that they can deal with a hostage situation.

“Opportunities and Threats” looks at your adversary. What are they doing or not doing that is an opportunity that can be exploited? Conversely, what are they doing that may jeopardize the hostages or your security? The more you train the quicker you will be able to assess your own capabilities. Once the initial hostage situation goes static a line of dialog should be opened as soon as possible.

I can think of no scenario where the incident commander should be part of the negotiation process with the hostage-taker. If the incident commander is the negotiator, he or she is not the incident commander. Regardless of how small your staff is, unless the incident command has no staff, this task must be delegated.

The response team needs to be mustered out of sight and a team leader chosen. Sometimes team leaders are pre-assigned on your shift roster. This is fine when nothing happens, but when it does the man or woman who is in that spot may not be the one you want to lead a rescue team that might be asked to do one of the most dangerous missions in all of law enforcement. Pick your team leader and then empower him or her to implement your plan.

There is no one tactical plan that will resolve your situation. Many factors will dictate what you can and cannot do: Number of hostage takers, terrain, tools, training, etc. What should be included is a combination of lethal and less lethal options. If the hostage(s) are being injured right in front of you, your options will be limited. You will have to go force on force. A contact shot with a handgun may be necessary unless you have a damn good shooter.

Force-on-force scenario
A ways back, I participated in a hostage drill at my jail. The team I took with me consisted of a few of the more experienced guys on my floor. I made the assignments at random and gave a Beretta with SIMS munitions to one of the deputies who seemed most confident with the weapon. I did not know these people very well at the time. The dictates of the scenario were just as I just described. The lone hostage taker began to stab the hostage. We were about thirty feet away when this began to happen. This left us with few options other than to rush the attacker.

My deputy with the Beretta understood that he was to shoot if the hostage taker began stabbing the hostage. While on the move the deputy fired five SIMS rounds into the hostage taker’s head. I call that fantastic shooting. We were then able to separate the hostage from the hostage taker and quickly drag him out to waiting medical personnel. Those five head shots made me look very good. I had no idea he had that much talent with a firearm. Previous teams either killed the hostage or failed to have a plan to spirit him away to waiting medical personnel. We made certain that was part of out plan because I understood my End State: Eliminate the threat AND rescue the hostage.

There was nothing fancy about this force-on-force scenario. Had there been other hostage-takers, we might have shot them with 37 or 40mm rounds to drive them back. If we were inside twenty feet, and the hostage and hostage taker were in close proximity like the photo at the top of this article, I might have considered employing the TASER by putting a dart in the arm of the hostage taker and in the body of the hostage. Yes, that is extremely risky, but you do what you have to based on what you are facing as the team leader on the scene.

On numerous occasions, I have seen how people in close proximity will both be locked up if one TASER dart is placed in each of them. You could also try a powerful Noise Flash Diversionary Device. And I do mean powerful. You need something with at least 15 grams of flash powder. Most sting balls only have 8 grams of flash powder and just are not strong enough to create the kind of sensory overload you need, but even with a flash bang, the suspect may not be so overwhelmed that they will stop their attack.

Time is definitely the enemy
Sadly, this is true in all hostage situations. There are just no guarantees. If you can wait for a SWAT team to arrive, by all means do so. They train for these things all the time. But if it begins to go south on you prior to their arrival, it is going to be all about you. SWAT will no doubt bring MP5s or some other type of assault weapon. Should you have those, as well? That’s your call. Again, how much training do your people have on those weapons in a hostage situation?

This is a very nasty situation. But remember this. There is a myth about prolonged tactical operations. Many people, especially administrators, strongly believe this myth. That myth is that time is on our side. Time is NOT on our side. Though time is always critical in any tactical operation, when you have an opposing will, time is also competitive. Both you and the hostage takers are competing for that time. As you form a plan, so do they. As you consider how to retake the hostages, they are working on their defenses to thwart your rescue efforts.

Both of you are riding on the OODA loop. OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action and was Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s cogent analysis of the decision making cycle in any tactical operation. OODA is ongoing and both you and your opponent are doing all four things based on the situation. Boyd was a fighter pilot. In his experience, the pilot who could process through the ever repeating cycles of the OODA loop faster than his opponent won the dogfight and lived to fight another day. The potential consequences in any tactical operation in law enforcement or corrections are no less deadly. And there is no more dangerous or daunting tactical problem that you will face in a jail or prison than a hostage situation. Are you ready for it?

(For more on End State, Commander’s Intent, SWOT and the OODA Loop see Sid Heal’s book, Sound Doctrine. There is probably no one book available in law enforcement filled with more valuable tools and tenets for team leaders and tactical commanders than this one.)

About the author
Sgt. John J. Stanley, M.A., is a twenty-one year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He has worked a variety of assignments including, custody, patrol, training and administrative support. He is also a published historian and has written extensively on the history of law enforcement and corrections.

He is considered an expert in less lethal weapons and tactics and is currently a member of the TASER International’s Corrections Board. He provided corrections scenarios for the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State University and contributed to its on-line Less Lethal Weapons class. John spent over a decade at LASD’s Custody Training Unit teaching classes such as Tactical Communications, Jail Intelligence Gathering, Tactical Weapons, Squad Tactics and Cell Extractions. John also was the lead instructor for LASD’s Custody Incident Command School (CICS) a class designed for sergeants and lieutenants and the Executive Incident Command School (EICS) for captains and above. He is also a member of the teaching cadre for LASD’s Tactical Science class offered to police personnel from all over the United States. John is currently a sergeant assigned to the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. He is also a squad leader and trainer on LASD’s newly formed Sheriff’s Response Team (SRT), a unit created to handle crowd control, jail and civil disturbances, and respond to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Also read: The OODA Loop: A key component to response

Read more from John Stanley

Lieutenant John J. Stanley, M.A., is a twenty-seven year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He has worked a variety of assignments including, custody, patrol, training and administrative support. He is considered an expert on less lethal weapons and tactics. He provided corrections scenarios for the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State University and contributed to its on-line Less Lethal Weapons class. John spent over a decade at LASD’s Custody Training Unit teaching classes such as Tactical Communications, Jail Intelligence Gathering, Tactical Weapons, Squad Tactics and Cell Extractions. John also was the lead instructor for LASD’s Custody Incident Command School (CICS) a class designed for sergeants and lieutenants and the Executive Incident Command School (EICS) for captains and above. He is a member of the California Tactical Officers Association and has published almost forty articles on law enforcement tactics and legal history.