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A new NYPD podcast focuses on the history of hostage negotiations

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Moving on to New York City, where 50 years ago a police officer was ahead of his time. Our law enforcement correspondent, Martin Kaste, recently discovered a podcast produced by the city's police department about the history of hostage negotiations.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: As I've covered police reform over the last few years, one of the mantras has been time. Cops are now being told to slow things down during confrontations to make room for de-escalation. It's 21st-century thinking, which is why it was so surprising to hear this voice from the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARVEY SCHLOSSBERG: The common element in all these situations is time - T-I-M-E - time.

KASTE: This is a training film made almost five decades ago. The man speaking is the late Harvey Schlossberg. He was a New York City cop, but he was one who also happened to have a psychology degree. So the brass had him devise a strategy for dealing with a very specific kind of problem - an armed suspect who takes hostages.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHLOSSBERG: This man goes into a situation to commit a crime. He gets caught in the act, and he panics. What we count on is if we can give that panic feeling a chance to pierce, he may realize that escaping or killing the hostage may not be the only way to handle this situation.

KASTE: This seems eminently reasonable today, but in the early '70s, it was revolutionary, says Edward Conlon. He's a retired NYPD officer as well as the writer and host of the podcast about this history, which is called "Talk To Me."

EDWARD CONLON: Yeah, hostage negotiations, which was born out of a chief here - and was watching the Olympics in 1972 and seeing how badly it was handled.

KASTE: He's referring there to the Israelis who were killed at Munich when terrorists took them hostage and the West German police tried to rescue them.

CONLON: And realizing that no police department anywhere ever had a programmatic approach to a hostage crisis.

KASTE: And in 1970s New York, armed standoffs were a real problem. Conlon's podcast has the voices of the people involved as the NYPD tried out its new talk strategy. It has officers, hostages, and it has this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: You got - you able to hear anything now?

CAT: I think I got...

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: No.

CAT: I hear you. Where's - I got a radio here, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: I was doing Dylan right now 'cause you said...

CAT: Really?

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: ...You wanted Dylan. I did...

CAT: I wanted Dylan. I want Stones. I want Kiss (ph). (Inaudible).

KASTE: A hostage taker on the radio. This is tape from one of the upcoming podcast episodes telling the story of a failed bank robber named Cat who took hostages in a bank, then got on the phone with a local rock station. What's striking is that while Cat fully expects the police to shoot him at the first opportunity, the DJ seems to mirror the NYPD's new, more patient philosophy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: You know, you...

CAT: They've got good marksmen out there, probably. And if I stick my head up, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: Well, I don't think anybody wants to take a potshot at anybody. I don't think you do. And I don't think they do.

CAT: No. It's - I'm not a killer, you know?

KASTE: Keep in mind that the police were listening to the radio, too, and biting their tongues. Edward Colon again.

CONLON: You really have to swallow a lot of pride, and you have to keep focused on the mission, which is saving lives.

KASTE: Eventually, this philosophy caught on. The NYPD's team traveled around the country teaching other departments how to do hostage negotiations. But later, things were complicated by the rise of active shooters. After Columbine, police had to learn to distinguish between people who take hostages and people who just want to kill. Still, Chuck Wexler, the director of the Police Executive Research Forum, says the 50-year-old insights of cop psychologist Harvey Schlossberg still matter

CHUCK WEXLER: Today they're as relevant, if not more, about communication, slowing things down and using time and distance. Valuable lessons in the '70s - they're as relevant today, if not more so.

KASTE: For anyone really interested in how those ideas evolved, the podcast "Talk To Me" is planning a total of 27 episodes, available on most podcast platforms.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.