SWT campus becomes a mock hostage scene
By Matt Flores
Express-News Staff Writer
SAN MARCOS — It begins with the irate wife of a prison warden threatening to kill her husband at his office.
During the tense episode, the gun-wielding wife — locked inside her husband's office with her spouse, two inmates and a secretary — becomes despondent and contemplates suicide. In a moment of indecision, she stumbles and the loaded pistol lands in the lap of one of the inmates.
Seizing the opportunity for freedom, the inmate turns the gun on the others in the room.
He now is in charge. And he has hostages.
The situation — simulated this week for nearly a dozen teams of hostage negotiators from across Texas and Oklahoma — may seem a bit fantastic to some. But in actuality, it is not unlike real-life events that correctional officers are likely to encounter at some point in their careers, said Wayman Mullins, a criminal justice professor at Southwest Texas State University.
"You can't make this stuff up. We are giving them situations they can expect to confront in their lifetimes," said Mullins, an expert in hostage and crisis negotiations.
Mullins was overseeing training of 28 teams at SWT during an annual two-day competition of mock hostage negotiations.
The competition is divided into two categories — one for correctional officers, the other for police and sheriff's deputies.
The scenarios were different for law enforcement officers. In one, a distraught, gun-toting college student barges into his ex-teacher's classroom, blames her for failing him, then holds the entire class hostage.
Though the exercises differed, the goal was the same: to bring the crisis to a peaceful end.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections Eastern Region won for correctional officers, while the Tyler Police Department won in the law enforcement category.
The competition involves a full day's worth of hostage negotiations. Bad-guy actors hold nothing back. During the simulations, they shout and they curse, much the same way real-life hostage-takers might.
Judges evaluate the teams on how well they work to defuse the potentially explosive crises.
Negotiators get a feel for how well they are doing during their speakerphone conversations with the hostage-takers.
"It's kind of like arguing with your kids; you know whether you are winning or losing," Mullins said.
Virtually nothing goes unnoticed by judges. They evaluate the negotiator's tone of voice, whether he or she is able establish rapport with the hostage-taker and how the negotiator is able to avoid topics that anger the actor.
"If a guy is angry and screaming, you don't want to offer him a pizza," said Joe Jimenez, a police officer from Richardson who has been a hostage negotiator for 13 years. He was one of several judges working at the competition.
That team members know the competition is merely an exercise doesn't diminish the value of the training, Jimenez said.
"Whoever is in that hot seat forgets it's just a game within five minutes," Jimenez said. "It's the kind of realism you can't get unless you are in a real-life situation."
For Jodi Hooten, an 11-year correctional officer now assigned to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Clements Unit in Amarillo, the competition is a grueling exercise that provides invaluable training.
"It's tough, but that's what it's about — getting us where we need to be," Hooten said.
Hostage Negotiation Competition Challenges Law Enforcement
Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
January 2, 2008