While the circumstances around a week-long hostage drama in Alabama — which ended with the rescue of a young boy and the death of his captor — are still being sorted out, the incident is a reminder of the delicate work done by police negotiators.

These are the officers who maintain direct contact with suspects in hostage takings or crisis situations where someone is alone but threatening their own life.  

"The main objective is the safety of every person involved. It is to bring [the situation] to as quick and safe a resolution as possible," says Paul Nadeau, who served for six years as a negotiator with the Durham Regional Police Service in Ontario.

"In doing so, we need to try to get everyone out safely, including the individual who is carrying the weapon and who is making the threats."

This is done by a team of negotiators and detectives who try to uncover as much information as possible about the suspect, including their family history, any mental illness, previous criminal record and what they were doing in the lead-up to the situation.

"I want to know what makes him tick, what he had for breakfast, who his friends are, what his day has been like, what his past has been like," Nadeau said.  

Negotiators relay what they learn through their conversations with the hostage-taker to the incident commander, a high-ranking officer who is in charge of the operation. Based on the hostage conversation and reports from the tactical units surrounding the barricaded person, the incident commander ultimately decides whether to continue talking or not.  

"The SWAT team who are at the scene are the incident commander’s eyes, they see what’s happening, and the negotiators are the incident commander’s ears, they hear what’s happening," says Terrance Zeniuk, who was a negotiator with the RCMP for almost 14 years.

Negotiators operate out of the police control centre, either a mobile RV-type vehicle or a building with communications equipment, located near the hostage or crisis situation.

They usually operate in teams of between two and eight, Zeniuk said. There is a primary negotiator who is in direct contact with the suspect while the rest of the team assists.

Aiming for a 'normal conversation'

At the outset, much of the job involves simply listening, because a suspect isn’t ready to pay attention because tensions are running high.

'Through your questioning, it is very much like peeling an onion.'—Terrance Zeniuk, former RCMP negotiator

"What you can expect often when you make that first call is a person yelling or screaming at you on the phone, particularly if it’s an emotionally charged situation," Zeniuk said. "And you have to be willing to work through that and listen carefully and eventually that yelling and screaming will come down to a normal conversation."

Nadeau said officers often must repeat themselves over and over to get through.

"The stress of [the hostage-taker’s] experience really shuts down their hearing and their thoughts for a period of time," he said.  

Once a person has calmed down, Zeniuk said the negotiator often has to work through the person’s day to uncover what set them off and how they ended up in a potentially deadly situation.

The suspect’s reasoning could begin with an all-around bad day before shifting to a dreadful commute and ultimately to an emotionally charged argument with a supervisor at work.

"Through your questioning, it is very much like peeling an onion," he said.

Nadeau also said a negotiator needs to be honest with the suspect in terms of consequences of their actions. Sometimes people will grab hostages in the midst of a bank robbery, for instance.

He said he would always explain that the person was likely going to be arrested, both to be upfront about the consequences and to prepare the suspect for the armed officers waiting outside.

In crisis situations, that can also include being upfront about a person’s threats to take their own life and asking them directly about their intentions.  

"That may sound harsh, but I want them to realize that the decision they’re going to make is a permanent one and there is probably a solution that we can find," Nadeau said.

FBI tight-lipped about Alabama negotiations

In Alabama, authorities stormed the underground bunker where 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes had held the child. Dykes, who was killed in the assault, had abducted the five-year-old boy, reportedly named Ethan, from a school bus on Jan. 29 after fatally shooting the driver.

Dykes had been seen with a gun, and officers concluded the boy was in imminent danger before launching the operation.

National Public Radio reports that officers were able to watch Dykes and the child through a hidden camera. Video showed that the 65-year-old appeared agitated towards the end of the standoff, sources told NPR.

The FBI has been tight-lipped about its negotiations with Dykes, but officers were able to communicate through a plastic pipe, which also allowed officers to send down food and medicine the boy needed.

Although it is up to the incident commander to decide when to continue talking or when to storm the area, the negotiator can offer insight into the mental state of the suspect based on what is being said, Nadeau said.

According to Nadeau, negotiators will sometimes say, "’This thing is going south,’" telling commanders, "’My opinion is this guy is going to shoot someone and he is going to shoot someone in the next minute and a half.’"

Nadeau said it is a good sign when a suspect is willing to keep talking.

"You want some type of reaction from them, some type of acknowledgement from them that there is something that they now hope to be able to get," he said, which could include something as simple as a request to contact a loved one.

One sign that a hostage or crisis situation might not end peacefully is if the suspect has no stated purpose, Zeniuk said.

"They’re not demanding to see their estranged wife, they’re not demanding a helicopter," he said. "They’re just entrenched in their position and they’re not coming out."