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5 strategies to prepare for hostage incidents

With the right motivation, mindset, and training we can eliminate a commonly-found defeatist attitude among correctional professionals


(Wikimedia/Sgt. Renee Sitler)

During their careers, most correctional professionals never face an incident where they could end up becoming a hostage. For this reason, many are unprepared for that terrible eventuality.

I’ve taught hostage response classes at both the academy and in-service levels, and at both levels, I often encounter a defeatist attitude — officers unwilling to believe that they can stop a hostage attempt.

No matter what scenario, no matter what defensive option is presented, their answer is always the same: “Yeah, but…” and then they will come up with an unwinnable (and often improbable) scenario. One veteran officer even told me that if an inmate tries to take an officer hostage, the officer should do nothing because the ERT will come and get them.

Sure, it can be argued that in certain facilities, if certain events were to occur, we could find ourselves in a hostage situation nearly impossible to control. However, this is not always the case. The inmates don’t always out number us 20 to one, and the hostage taker is not always 6’6” and 280 pounds. So we need to prepare for incidents that can be won so they will be won.

If They Can Do It, Why Can’t I?
I often tell the story of two officers I work with who, early in their careers, stopped a hostage/escape attempt. Neither officer is blessed with size, strength, or outstanding physical ability. Further, at the time they lacked experience and had little training. Nonetheless, they managed to overpower and outsmart two inmates and won. Thus, every corrections officer should ask themselves, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”

Winning comes in many forms. To develop a winning mindset you do not always have to overpower the inmate. Good tactics and trickery can go a long way to give your team the time and opportunity to take back control of the situation. For instance:

• Escalating to a high level of force rapidly and then getting out
• Fighting hard enough and long enough for help to arrive
• Finding and using defensive weapons of opportunity
• Taking advantage of any unexpected opening they make
• There are countless others ideas — add yours below

Put simply, if you have a defeatist attitude and fail to look for options and alternatives, you simply will never find them.

Size and strength are valuable assets to have when protecting yourself, but they are not the only ones, or even most important. As a women’s self defense instructor for 18 years, I’ve seen in the training room and the real world what a small person can do with the right motivation, mindset, and training.

Window of Opportunity
As trainers, we spend time teaching our officers how to prevent hostage situations from developing and we spend time teaching what to do if an officer is taken hostage. However, we need to start focusing on the gap between the start of the hostage situation and the time the inmate(s) has/have control.

In other words, we need to practice transitioning — both physically and mentally — out of an assertive mode and into an aggressive mode. Here are some guidelines to help get you there:

1. Remain alert and stay vigilant for possible threats, danger or security hazards. Often the overriding factor as to whether or not a hostage situation takes place is the vigilance of the staff. Inmates will pay close attention to your behavior and how you do your job. If a hostage attempt is planned, they will try to exploit the weaknesses of both the officer and the facility.

2. Follow your facility’s security policy and procedures. Do not take short cuts. Conduct frequent security inspections at unpredictable times. If there are security violations or breaches, take them seriously. Make sure supervisors and other staff members are informed.

3. Know your facility’s emergency policies and procedures in advance. There won’t be any time to refer to the manual.

4. Be decisive and act quickly. To do this you must be mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared and you must have developed a winning mindset. Do everything you reasonably can to keep the inmate from controlling you. Acting quickly and decisively will aid you in containing the incident as much as possible.

5. Have a preplanned, practiced response. This involves thinking about the dangers you face on the job and having a workable plan of action to keep yourself safe. Keep your defensive tactics skills sharp through continuous repetition. Don’t be satisfied with being competent, strive for being outstanding. Take advantage of any and all training your department offers. Think about techniques that you have not been taught in defensive tactics class but that would be justifiable under the circumstances. Extraordinary events call for extraordinary measures. Don’t be afraid to think “outside the box” if the situation calls for it.

When dealing with hostage response issues I often get the question, “Why spend time and effort on an incident that the officer will probably never face?” My question back is, “Why do you pay for fire insurance when your house will probably never catch on fire?”

Further, everything I’ve discussed here can be applied to a staff assault scenario too. So, by focusing on the gap between the start of a hostage attempt and the moment inmate(s) have control of the staff member, we are getting two-for-one training in both hostage prevention and combating sudden assault. That’s a pretty good deal.

Finally, the most important reason we need to prepare for this terrible event is the same reason that, deep down, we prepare for any dangerous event: There are people at home expecting you to arrive there safe.

Stay strong everyone

Steven Benusa is currently the lead Defensive Tactics Instructor for the jail division of the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department. He has taught corrections and law enforcement officers, military and security personnel, private investigators and fugitive recovery agents. A martial arts veteran of over 27 years, Steve holds the ranks of 4th degree black belt in Kyuki-do and 2nd degree black belt in Judo. He has been a martial arts instructor since 1988 and has received several awards for his teaching ability. He also has experience in corporate and V.I.P. security and is also an Adjunct Instructor for Western Technical College.