A year after an 11-hour hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Jewish communities are learning how to brace for similar events.
In the Washington area, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington offered a webinar on Jan. 19 with steps to take at the onset, duration and resolution of a hostage situation. “Although houses of worship are generally very safe, violent attacks on members of faith communities are increasing at an alarming rate,” Michael Masters, CEO of Secure Community Network, said in a press release. “We cannot choose the time and place of the next attack, but we can choose our level of preparedness.”
SCN works to implement safety and security in Jewish communities, Masters said SCN’s goal is for Jewish communities to have standardized approaches to dangerous situations. Doing so can result in an environment in which Jews feel safe and able to express pride in their Jewish identity.
“Now is not the time to lower the Israeli flags that hang outside our institutions, to take off our kippot, to hide our Stars of David or to remove the mezuzot that hang on our doors,” Masters said. “The ability to live securely is in our hands, not those who wish us harm.”Viewers heard from Jeff Cohen, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.
“We let in a stranger who appeared to be someone who needed help,” Cohen said. “It was very cold that day. He said he was homeless, that he was trying to get to a shelter. He made eye contact, he laughed, he was friendly. He didn’t look like someone who was a threat.”
That man held Cohen and three others hostage, at gunpoint, for more than 10 hours.
“Our survival was not a miracle,” Cohen said. “Frankly, it’s a little frustrating when people say it is. Our survival, our escape, was due to training, planning and actually executing some of the things that we had prepared for.”
Hostages knew to move toward the nearest exit, to stay in positions that would allow them to move at a moment’s notice, to listen to their hostage-taker and even make friendly conversation.
Attendees of the conference learned similar tips, presented by former FBI agents Shawn Brokos and Beth LaManna. Both women are certified crisis negotiators who now work in the Jewish security world. The two broke down how to act in three stages of a hostage situation: the initial, middle and resolution phases.
“The first 15 to 45 minutes are what we consider the most dangerous,” LaManna said, “It’s also known as the takeover phase.”
This period is characterized by a great deal of panic. The initial takeover by a perpetrator creates confusion as to what is happening, worries over the extent of the threat and overall anxiety. The best tip is to stay calm.
“It seems simple, but I can tell you it’s a lot easier said than done,” LaManna said. “One of the techniques that we often recommend is slow and deep breathing. That helps increase the oxygen to our system and enhances better decision-making capabilities.”
Calm is contagious, LaManna explained, and keeping your bearings can help other hostages through the situation as well. Another important tip to making it through the initial phase is to obey the hostage-taker.
“It’s important to be compliant, be respectful and not look to engage the hostage-taker by threatening them, challenging them, acting belligerent or aggressive,” LaManna said. “This is a time we don’t want anybody to stand out.”
Remaining “vanilla” ensures that a victim doesn’t reinforce the sense of power and potential aggression from the hostage-taker. While it’s tempting to make a bold stand or cower in fear, a moderate attitude helps cool down the situation.
The most crucial part of the initial phase, according to LaManna, is developing a survival mindset. Hostage situations can vary from minutes to days; establishing a will to survive, no matter what, will power someone through the situation.
The middle phase lasts from 45 minutes to the resolution of the hostage situation.“This is really what I consider the meat and potatoes phase,” LaManna said. “This is where most of the work is going to get done between the hostage-taker and the crisis negotiators.”
Everyone expects immediate results, but the primary goal of crisis negotiators is the opposite.
“Our primary goal is to slow things down,” LaManna spoke from her experience as a crisis negotiator. “To stall and buy time. While this can be incredibly frustrating and counterintuitive to the hostages, who are living through this stress and fearing for their lives, it actually makes a lot of sense.”
More time allows for people to move toward normal levels of functionality, after the chaos of the initial phase, increasing rationality, decision making and cognitive thinking.
The goal of hostages during this stage is to humanize themselves.
“This is your opportunity to make yourself appear as a person with a family, with a background, with a job, with a place to return to and a life to go back to,” LaManna advised.
Using your name and finding ways to connect with the hostage-taker can make them feel understood. Listen to and encourage the hostage taker to speak. Refrain from insults or injecting your own values.
Once you have established a rapport with the hostage-taker, you can try to influence their behavior with amiable suggestions.
Brokos and LaManna reviewed three types of resolution: release/surrender, escape and tactical intervention.
In all of these situations, it is important that the hostage keeps their arms above their head, their hands empty and their body language slow when interacting with law enforcement. It can be difficult for enforcement stationed around, or intervening in, a hostage situation to know who is friend or foe.
No matter what happens, the most important advice LaManna provides is, “Do what you need to do. Live through to see another day.” ■
Molly Zatman is a freelance writer.