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Police learning to deal with kidnapping
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-10-21 08:58

The crime scene: a supermarket. The victim: a pregnant woman. The offender: a young man holding a sharp knife to her neck.

A young hostage is carried  off the crime scene by policemen after his kidnapper was shot by police in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province on August 17. Two hostages were rescued unhurt. [newsphoto]

Soon the place was surrounded by more than 200 police officers and dozens of police vehicles. A big crowd of spectators had gathered. A few minutes later a petite young woman emerged. She was wearing a pretty skirt and looked nothing like the crisis negotiator that she was.

She slowly approached the kidnapper, her gaze always on him, but full of understanding.

"Hi, I'm here to help you. I have no bad intentions. I know you're doing this out of helplessness. Would you please calm down?

"Whatever is in your mind, please tell me about it. I'll do the best I can. It's not easy for our parents to bring us up. All of us can get headaches now and then. But we're not just living for ourselves. If something happens to us, our parents would be heartbroken."

The talk lasted an hour. Onlookers were getting fretful. Then the kidnapper demanded his ransom: 3 million yuan (US$36,300) plus a getaway car.

The female negotiator nodded: "Take it easy. We'll meet your needs. Can you tell me what kind of car you want? And 3 million yuan, too, right?"

As time went on, the kidnapper became more agitated. Before he made any abrupt move, the negotiator said: "I know how much anguish you're in. But isn't the lady you're holding also in pain? Think of her unborn baby, who is totally innocent. We've been nice to you. Couldn't you be a little nicer to her and the baby in her womb?"

A flicker of hesitation. But he quickly reverted to: "No way. Why should I care about them? Give me the money and the car! Quick!"

But he was wavering, and as he wavered, the knife withdrew a little from the victim's throat.

The negotiator used hand gestures to calm him down. "Look at the pregnant lady. Hasn't she suffered enough? You don't mind her sitting down, do you?"

As he acquiesced, the negotiator reached out to the pregnant woman and helped her, saying to the kidnapper at the same time: "Thank you. You're kind at heart. Why do things have to be like this? Why can't we talk? Everything can be discussed."

There was a scuffle, she separated the hostage from the knife and waiting policemen sprang in to hold him down.

Birth of the crisis negotiator

China is seeing a surge in hostage crises. The Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily reports that there have been more than 20 reported cases in the past year. Things have exacerbated in the past two months, with almost weekly stories of armed kidnapping.

What we have related above wasn't one of them. It was a dress rehearsal for a hostage negotiation.

In the Beijing suburb of Changping, a seminar was held over the summer to train people in negotiation techniques for these situations. More than 50 of the best policemen and women, recruited from all over the city, went through extensive tests in psychology. Only 17 were selected. They were to be China's first batch of hostage negotiators.

Three months of lectures, case analyses, demonstrations and run-throughs led to consensus that talking it out is often the best way out for a hostage stand-off.

The highest principle for negotiation is to guarantee the life and safety of the hostage, said Professor Gao Feng, who added that it is not commendable to use violence against violence. In a society governed by law and human rights, even the life of the criminal suspect should not be taken away lightly before there is a court verdict. Shooting the kidnapper should be the last solution, said the professor of Beijing Police Academy, who was the first Chinese expert to study the handling of such negotiations.

Doing so may also leave a psychological scar on the hostage. It may even by mistake hurt the wrong target. On July 2, a police sniper tried to shoot a kidnapper in a Yinchuan restaurant in Northwest China. Sadly he hit the hostage instead.

Traditionally, killing the kidnapper, whatever the cost, was considered the ultimate victory. But the only international standard for evaluating such crisis intervention is whether the life of the hostage is saved when the dust settles, Gao said.

The point was hit home in a case on July 7, around the same time as the story of the negotiator training programme was making its rounds in the nation's media.

On that fateful morning, Chen Haoran, a 23-year-old peasant, forced his way into a red Volkswagen Bora. The driver was a young mother named Guo, who had just dropped off her daughter at a kindergarten in Changchun, capital of Northeast China's Jilin Province. Brandishing a knife, Chen asked for a ransom of 100,000 yuan (US$12,000).

Before they could drive off from the crowded street, the car was quickly surrounded by hundreds of policemen and thousands of spectators. After three hours' stalemate, police fired four shots, within 10 seconds of one another, killing Chen. But Guo had been stabbed seven times. She died on the way to the hospital.

The public, as well as the victim's family, questioned the wisdom of the police action: Why did negotiation fail? Why did police wait to shoot until the hostage had already been harmed? Why was there a 10-second lapse between the first and the last shots?

The police, on their part, defended their decision: They had tried their best to meet the demands of the kidnapper, even offering to exchange the hostage for one of the policemen. The kidnapper and the hostage were very close, and it was hard to see clearly from outside the car. "We would have kept on talking to him if he had not harmed the hostage," said Tang Qinghua, deputy director of Changchun Public Security Bureau.

A reporter from CCTV asked if there were any professional negotiators in Changchun.

"All the principal officials from our bureau were on the spot. If I cannot be counted as an expert, surely the other bureau chiefs can," Tang said.

Qualities of a negotiator

Therein lies the rub.

Tang and his colleagues might be the best qualified in that city to have conducted the negotiation, but they were not professionally trained.

A well-trained negotiator has a success rate of 80 per cent, Professor Gao said. But the current success rate in China is less than 50 per cent, and even that is achieved mostly by chance. He blamed failures like Changchun on a lack of negotiation skills.

As many police chiefs showed up on the scene, the danger of chaos lurked because a clear reporting and responsibility system was not up and running, said Hao Hongkui, associate professor at the Beijing-based China People's Public Security University.

A negotiating team usually consists of three people: a team leader who co-ordinates everything, a chief negotiator who does all the talking, and an assistant who records all the details of the scene and can take over if the chief negotiator has to be replaced.

The frequent change of negotiators in the Changchun incident was a big mistake. The negotiator has to establish a rapport with the kidnapper, to get on the same wavelength with him so that there can be a more meaningful communication. Unless absolutely necessary, one person should carry the negotiation to the end.

As it is, the pool of negotiators is made up of police, but not all good policemen can be good negotiators. The prerequisites for a good negotiator, according to Gao Feng, include a wealth of legal knowledge and a storehouse of miscellaneous information. He or she must be extremely sharp, observant and expressive, have quick reflexes and rely mostly on gut feelings. On top of that, he or she must be able to act well enough to show their emotions with verbal and body language.

It all comes down to the moment when the kidnapper asks "Is it too late to lay down my arms?" and that's the first sign of success for the negotiator, said Gao.

Wang from Tongzhou Police Bureau, one of the 17 trainees in the programme, was learning to modulate his voice and control the pace of his conversation during one of the practices. Set in a beauty salon, he pretended to be the owner and uncle of the hostage. When the kidnapper demanded 80 million yuan (US$9.6 million), he quipped: "Brother, if I had 80 million, I wouldn't be in this business. I'd be in real estate and driving a Mercedes."

The kidnapper burst into a chuckle and the tension was slightly defused.

Wang, who would not reveal his real name because of the nature of his work, said he must have the upper hand. "If my opponent's brain is running at 1,000 rotations, mine must run at 3,000 to outsmart him."

The immediate priority of a negotiator is to dissipate tension. The kidnapper tends to be in an extremely unstable, emotional state and may abruptly resort to violence. But rarely is his ultimate intention to harm the hostage. That gives the negotiator room to manipulate the situation and put the kidnapper at ease.

A professional negotiator cannot guarantee success, but he or she would not make such blunders as speaking in a condescending or commanding voice, and neither will there be dramatic ultimata like "I'll give you 10 minutes or..."

Value of life

The shift of emphasis, from killing the kidnapper to saving the hostage, can only happen at a time when there is a public awakening to the value of human rights. But it also puts the police in a riskier position.

"When a shot is fired, the first cop who rushes in has the job to protect the hostage. It is the second cop's responsibility to contain the kidnapper," said Wang.

The seminar was very clear in listing priorities: first rescue the hostage, then protect the police, and finally minimize harm to the criminal.

Wang said this deviates from practice in Western countries. "The West places the lives of the negotiators and cops at the forefront to reduce unnecessary human loss, so negotiations are often conducted by telephone or at a safe distance, but we have vowed to put the lives of the public before our own," said Wang. He said close-range negotiations were much more effective in breaking down the kidnappers' mental barriers.

If this sounds like taking the moral high ground, calls for restraint from unnecessarily killing the hostage taker have elicited some negative reaction. Xi Wei, a Beijing policeman, complained in the Beijing News about what he perceived as the overemphasis on the rights of the kidnapper: One is destroying public safety and does not even respect his own life, and the other is risking his life to protect this safety. Is the life of the former more valuable than that of the latter?

"Actually nobody is advocating a total ban of using lethal force against kidnappers. It's just that it should be used with more caution. He may have broken the law, but he should be brought to justice in a court of law. What he thinks and says at that time may well be a lesson and a deterrent for people with similar inclinations. If we kill him on the spot, it will not be a total victory for our rescue efforts," said Wang.

The risk to the negotiator, said Professor Gao, is fairly low, with the worldwide figure for attacks on negotiators at 3.6 per cent. Yet dynamics at a hostage scene can change so fast that a slight miscalculation may end up with the tragic loss of the lives of the hostage or the cop-cum-negotiator.

Next year the 17 Beijing negotiators will go through another round of training and some will be sent overseas to hone their skills. In addition, Professor Mei Jianming of China People's Public Security University has invited experts from the US Federal Investigation Bureau for exchanges and lectures. Many of the teachers and trainees in the current programme have also been sent to Chengdu, Shanghai and Guangzhou to get more hands-on experience and put theory into practice.

"We are only just starting, and have a lot to learn. We need more cases for analysis. We'll take it one step at a time," said Gao Feng.

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