Hostage and Barricade Incidents and Domestic Violence: Helping Police to See the Invisible Walls

This blog post was coauthored by Kit Gruelle.

Movies about hostage-taking mostly show two types of captors: 1) Desperate but mostly genial men like those portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon or Tim Robbins in Cadillac Man who hold hostages for somewhat sympathetic purposes, and 2) Evil and diabolically calculating men like those portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs or Alan Rickman in Die Hard who take hostages for nefarious reasons.

In real life, the most common type of hostage taker is a more ordinary offender, but one with potentially deadly motives: a possessively controlling husband, ex-husband or ex-boyfriend who barricades his partner, and sometimes his children and others in house, usually as some sort of "last stand" with his partner or the police. In many cases, he has been served with an Order of Protection, banning him from seeing his ex-partner. The media often refers to these as "stand offs" to convey that the police are faced with a situation in which their mere presence could result in the killing of the hostages and themselves, as in the case of so-called suicides by cops.

Only recently has law enforcement identified domestic violence as the root cause for half of the hostage and/or barricade incidents in the U.S. According to the FBI's Hostage Barricade Database System (HOBAS) , 49 percent of hostage-taking and barricade situations involve a family member, spouse/ex-spouse or significant other.

Training now exists in some parts of the country to prepare negotiators for the unique aspects of a domestic violence-related incident. The training entails helping law enforcement officers to recognize that these situations often have a history in which the female victim has endured prior hostage-making tactics such as isolation, threats, coercion, intimidation, and violence long before the current crisis. Partners of these men have often been subjected to three conditions that are now recognized as risk factors for intimate partner homicide: extreme control over their daily activities, isolation from family and friends and constant surveillance or stalking.

Women describe tactics their abusers use to remind them of who is "in control." One woman, whose husband was determined to know her whereabouts at all times, gave her a cell phone and ordered her to "snap a photo" every time she changed aisles at the grocery store to immediately send to him so that he knew she was "where she was supposed to be." Another woman's husband would put a two-minute egg timer by the phone when she started talking. She knew she had to be off the phone by the time the sand ran through the timer -- "or else".

Historically, tactics like these are NOT what law enforcement officers were trained to listen or look for. They are trying to determine if a "crime" has occurred, and are only looking for physical evidence that can be captured on film or video.

Daily control, fear tactics and social isolation of the victim by the abuser help to form the invisible walls that entrap victims of serious abuse. Contrary to popular notions, abusers need not hold guns to their partners' heads to get them to stay, though they sometimes do this as a "reminder". More typically, serious abusers use nonverbal signs to communicate their threats of harm, or to promote their omnipresent control. Many victims report that all it takes is "the look" by the abuser to terrify and further entrap them. This kind of subtle behavior creates a problem for victims since much of what they are reacting to is not illegal behavior and may, from an outside perspective, seem subtle or trivial. Without knowing the full context of abuse, it is common for police and court evaluators to judge that the victim is "overreacting," or "being paranoid".

Police training now includes helping officers to hone their listening and observational skills in order to detect the signs of possessive control, even if there is no hard evidence that a new crime has been committed. Once these subtle signs, or minutiae, are detected, officers can document them as risk factors and start to understand the degree of control the abuser is exerting over the victim. This will help both the victim and law enforcement understand the risks she and the children face when she decides to separate from him and to plan accordingly. But more importantly, this shows victims that police are concerned for her safety and wellbeing and not just whether a crime has been committed. This is important because some research has shown that victims who felt that officers cared for their safety were more likely to use the criminal justice system in the future. Conversely for many victims who'd had inadequate or indifferent interactions with police, the proverbial well was forever tainted for them and they never called the police again.

By fine-tuning their powers of observation, police are helping to foster better communication with the victim, which will help develop the trust that is necessary to try to prevent future assaults, including hostage-taking incidents.

In Fresno, California police noticed a large belt nailed into the wall right next to the chair in which the husband always sat. This opened up a dialogue with the victim who revealed that her husband would often just glance at the belt in order to put her and the children in fear.

In Massachusetts, police responding to a domestic violence call found no evidence of physical abuse but noted that the windows of the house had been painted black. The victim later revealed that her husband was extremely jealous and had painted the windows as a way of preventing her from looking out at other men.

In San Francisco, two seasoned domestic violence investigators responded to a call and immediately separated the victim and the suspect. One officer had the suspect in a far corner of the living room and the other officer was speaking with the victim. He was able to get her to open up about what had happened between she and her husband. Soon, the suspect told the officer that he needed to use the bathroom, and when he walked out, he had a hand towel over his arm. She looked past the officer, saw her husband, and immediately stopped talking. The officer who had been working with her noticed right away that her demeanor changed, that she "shut down." He looked at her and asked her to step outside with him. She was visibly shaken. He got her calmed down and then asked her what had just happened. She told him that every time he beat her, he would first cover her head with a hand towel. Because this officer was skilled at observing the behavior of abusers and victims, and understood the coded language they often share, he was able to detect what had just happened and intervene appropriately.

Though clearly, inadequate police responses to domestic violence still occur, updated training is helping police to better recognize the impossible and dangerous choices that many victims face, and to become partners for their safety rather than agents for their re-victimization.

Kit Gruelle is a domestic violence victim/survivor advocate and community educator. For the last fifteen years, she has co-taught a course for California POST that trains hostage/crisis negotiators on the unique and specific dynamics of domestic violence crisis incidents. She was also the subject of the recent HBO documentary Private Violence.