MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
In a cramped room in a mobile command center parked off Upshur Avenue aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, agents from the Marine Corps Criminal Investigation Division negotiated by phone with a frantic woman who had taken a bank hostage at gunpoint.
“Her friend’s son has leukemia, and that’s why she wants to talk to Obama about Obamacare,” Sgt. Evan Baschnagel said, recapping the situation. Otherwise, the woman said she would kill a hostage in 20 minutes.
Sgt. Colin Kelley proposed buying time and shifting blame for the delay onto the command.
“Obviously, that’s going to take some time to do,” he said when he got the woman back on the phone. “I need to push that up through my chain of command. I can’t just call up the president.”
He listened for a moment. “Everyone’s got bosses, unfortunately,” he said, adding, “It sounds like you’re feeling a little betrayed by your country.”
The bank robber, however, was a role-player with the FBI, and Baschnagel and Kelley were students in a weeklong basic crisis negotiation course, which culminated that day, Dec. 13.
After the Army discontinued the hostage negotiation training it used to offer the Marine Corps, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Trevon Gray, an investigations officer with the CID at Quantico, reached out to the FBI for training.
This was the Marine Corps’ first session with the FBI, and Gray brought 27 students from around the world for the course. Most were CID Marines, with a few from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI and Army CID. He hopes to make it an annual training.
The hostage situation at the bank was one of four scenarios running simultaneously, and groups of students cycled from one to the next with 15-minute briefings between. Three scenarios were barricaded hostage situations and one was a potential suicide.
“Not only can we handle a hostage situation, we can handle any type of crisis,” Gray said.
Michael Helms, the FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the exercise, said crisis negotiation is a separate skill from other law enforcement work.
“There’s a set of skills we want them to become comfortable with in these situations,” he said, noting that this was the same crisis negotiation training the FBI provides its own agents and other law enforcement. Helms said the material comes from lessons learned from standoffs like those at Ruby Ridge in Idaho and Waco, Texas, and at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Inside the building, another group of agents negotiated remotely with a police officer who said he would kill his wife before he would let her take their son from him. His law enforcement experience, as well as the wife badgering him in the background, complicated the task.
In another room, agents tried to decide how they could get insulin to a diabetic hostage taken by a disgruntled Army veteran at the place of business where he’d recently been fired.
Now working the suicide negotiation scenario, Baschnagel leaned through a cracked door to question a man threatening to kill himself.
“Control, huh? What is it that you can’t control, Alex?” he asked gently, waiting for a response. “So this is the only thing you feel like you can control right now, is yourself.”
This sort of questioning, active listening, patience and calm is much of what the students had practiced for the last week.
“These folks are being trained to save lives,” said Helms. “That’s the bottom line.”
— Writer: firstname.lastname@example.org