<p>Tuscaloosa police officer Cecil Lancaster looks over at his attacker, Mario Centobie, during Centobie&rsquo;s sentencing. Centobie was executed in Alabama in April 2005.</p>

Pulaski County, Ark.

For nearly an hour, an in-custody suspect, 29-year-old Alonzo Gilliam, armed with a homemade knife, held a Pulaski County sheriff s deputy hostage in the basement of the courthouse. Gilliam was being held on numerous charges, including possession of a firearm, possession of a weapon in jail, terrorist acts and theft. He also had prior arrests for aggravated robbery.

Jones County, Miss.

In 1998, convicted burglar Jeremy Granberry, age 19, and his mentor, Mario Centobie, age 32, a career criminal, managed to overpower two Jones County sheriff s deputies during a transport from the state prison to the county court for a hearing. Both deputies were found 24 hours later in a barn roughly 60 miles from where they started, alive and in reasonably good shape but bound with their own handcuffs. Centobie went on to shoot and wound Tuscaloosa (Ala.) officer Cecil Lancaster, and shoot and kill Moody, Ala., officer Keith Turner.

Sacramento, Calif.

A female California State Prison corrections officer, age 41, was held hostage for more than 10 hours by inmate David Michael Watson, who was armed with a 6" homemade shank. The inmate, a San Diego gang member being held as a maximum-security prisoner, was serving a 26-year sentence at the Sacramento facility for armed robbery and false imprisonment. The incident occurred in the dining hall where Watson worked. After a day of negotiations, the officer, a nine-year veteran, was released.

Rochester, N.Y.

Two imported hoods, John Matarazzo and Dennis Olsen, were surprised by a Rochester police detective who, in a moment of complacency, failed to call out at the scene of a silent jewelry store alarm. Bound with duct tape, the detective was taken hostage and stashed in the back room. After a few minutes, the detective managed to free himself and engage the two suspects in a gunfight. Olsen was taken out on scene as he fled out the door, but Matarazzo escaped and, after fleeing on foot, took a homeowner hostage and held her captive for several hours before taking his own life.

The first three incidents, two of which are very recent, were taken right out of local newspapers. The fourth, resurrected from the memory banks of this author, lives on even though years have passed. I was there. I helped carry one of the wounded officers into the ambulance moments after the first suspect was declared DOA at the scene.

Calibre Press, Inc., the Street Survival Seminar folks, was probably the first training organization to bring officers-as-hostage survival concepts to modern law enforcement. Its 1998 award-winning training video Hostage Officer Survival really raised the consciousness of professional law enforcement to the dangers as well as the survival tactics both street cops and corrections officers alike can adopt to avoid and win hostage situations.

Little has been said about that topic since that time. I ve therefore written this piece to recap the motivators behind people who might take officers as hostages, and to reinforce some of the tactics for surviving hostage-cop situations.

Motivating Factors

Without getting into all the psychology, hostage-takers generally fall into three categories: revenge seekers, power seekers and attention seekers. Motivating factors for each can run the gamut of deriving a benefit (such as an escape), righting some perceived wrong or gaining an element of recognition for some cause. Knowing which type you re dealing with can help you develop dialogue and establish some rapport with your hostage-taker in the event you find yourself in such a situation.

Your first objective: Try and calm the situation by first calming yourself down, and then calming down the suspect. Autogenic breathing, the old stand-by in high-stress situations, will help you think faster and clearer deep, slow, rhythmic breaths.

Next, use verbal defusing skills like those you d use with an emotionally disturbed person to calm your captor to try and find out exactly who and what you re dealing with. Spontaneous hostage situations, such as those occurring during prisoner transports, are most likely committed by power-seekers, subjects looking for a way out of their situation. Slow, quiet, non-threatening dialogue will go far in keeping this situation from turning any uglier than it already is.

The key: Convince your captor that they ve got a better chance of getting their demands met by keeping you safe and alive. The revenge-seeker or attention-seeker might be harder to convince because they probably performed some long-range planning prior to taking you hostage. Again, try to slow things down and buy some time during your dialogue to find out where this person is coming from. Try and get your captor to see you as a human being, not the faceless, nameless lawman standing in the way of their freedom or as someone interfering with the means to their end. The longer you can engage the suspect in dialogue, the better your chances of surviving the situation.

Awareness & Planning

Of course, the best way to survive a cop-as-hostage situation is to avoid getting into one.

Always be aware of your surroundings, both on and off duty. Look at the body language and other non-verbal cues of people around you whenever you re out in public. Mindless dialogue during a routine transport or meaningless exchanges during those sometimes mundane tasks in a jail setting could be the set-up for a hostage-taking.

Think tactically

When on the job, always stabilize before handcuffing and handcuff before searching to minimize the possibility of a hostage situation taking place. Use a backup officer when one is available. When off duty, stay aware of your environment, kind of a modified condition yellow, and if you carry your creds while off duty, make sure you also carry your gun.

Rehearse during training

Train for surviving a hostage situation. During contact/cover refresher training, formulate a preplanned course of action for use in a hostage-cop event. Expect the unexpected. Remember the action/reaction concept. During firearms training, the fact that a suspect s action will always beat the officer s reaction can work in your favor in the event you need to act first. That is, what works against you in firearms response time can work for you in hostage situations should you need to fire to survive when and if the opportunity presents itself.

Practice escape techniques

Know and master the physical-control skills you might have to use in the event you are ever taken hostage. For example, the GUN Principle: Grab, Undo and Neutralize. Keep your cutting tool within reach in the event you find yourself duct-taped, and practice getting to it. Hide a handcuff key on your body, not just on your Sam Brown; your gun belt may be taken away from you. Practice using that spare key. If your department permits it, carry a back-up gun and practice getting to it and using it.

Anticipate going mobile

Should the worst-case scenario occur and you find yourself being taken to another location, try to keep calm. Look for opportunities to escape. Remember: Vehicle trunks were made to keep people out, not keep people in. You ll probably have a lot of tools at your disposal if you ever find yourself locked in a vehicle trunk. If you still have your Sam Brown or even your mini flashlight, that s even better. But if not, brake-light bulbs can give you some illumination inside a trunk, and a spare tire can give you some breathing air. Punch out trunk locks to give you some idea of your location or a way to signal other motorists that an emergency is occurring inside the trunk.

Rehearse verbal (and non-verbal) signals with your partner

Buzz words or some other verbal cue can instantly alert your partner or dispatcher that something has gone wrong, and those cues and signals must be worked out beforehand or it will just cause confusion or worse, tip off your captor.

Remember deception

Chances are your captor will be just as supercharged on adrenaline as you (or even more so). While that may make them somewhat unpredictable (and also more dangerous), you might be able to use that fact to your advantage. Your captor may be quick to react to a distraction, which might give you an opportunity to reach your backup gun. Or maybe they won t catch you keying your portable radio or hitting the panic button (if your unit has one).

My good friend, teaching partner and defensive-tactics trainer Guy Rossi, used such a tactic when he was held hostage at a Fairport, N.Y., police stationhouse a few years back when we both had a full head of dark brown hair. While looking down the barrel of a 30.06 rifle, he surreptitiously keyed his portable radio mic, which broadcast his situation to other units. His dialogue consisted of the location where the incident was taking place, the situation s severity, as well as the type of weapon his captor had pointed at him. The hostage-taker never knew their conversation was being transmitted to every other unit on that frequency. Guy also used a moment of distraction to set the world long jump record by a cop in full duty uniform by leaping over a radio console, clearing it by several inches and flying out the door.

When to Escape

Speaking of distraction, experts in hostage psychology say there are three times when the chances for success in escaping a hostage situation are at their best. First is during the early stages of the attack, when the scene is still somewhat disorganized and your captor hasn t settled into a routine yet. A quick and dynamic response may be best within the first few seconds or minutes of the incident. Your captor may still be trying to formulate their plan, especially if they acted spontaneously.

The next best time might be when the suspect has actually relaxed a bit and feels you aren t going to execute an instinctive response. In other words, when their guard is down a little.

The third opportunity might be at any time you detect or sense your captor is distracted, or when you can create some distraction. Humans can usually focus on only one thought at a time. If you can change your captor s channel briefly, that might give you a chance to execute your escape plan.

And the operative word here is plan. Have one. Know what you re going to do. If you intend to get your captor s weapon or regain yours, go for it. If you intend to get down low so your partner can get a safe shot off, do it fast. If you intend to bail, either out the window, the trunk or the door, move!

Remember, with the right training, the right mind-set and a mastery of all your tactics (physical, firearms, emotional), you can survive and win a hostage-cop situation.


Calibre Press, Inc. (1998). Hostage Officer Survival. Northbrook, IL: Calibre Press Video Productions, Inc.


Probably the most famous officer-as-hostage occurrence remains the Onion Field Incident from Bakersfield, Calif., made famous in the Joseph Wambaugh book-turned-movie of the same name. For the younger officers out there who may know of the incident only by name, the case involved Los Angeles police officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, who were taken hostage by two armed-robbery suspects during a traffic stop. Both were driven out into a field and marked for execution by the two suspects. Campbell was fatally shot, his body left in a ditch, but Hettinger managed to escape. Both suspects were eventually apprehended with information supplied by Hettinger.

The Onion Field Incident is to hostage-cop situations what the Newhall Incident is to firearms training. It has also become a sort of primer among police psychologists as what not to do when dealing emotionally with cops taken hostage.


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Less Lethal Lessons, Part II

When deploying less lethal munitions, officers should take extra precaution to read the scene

Vehicle Rampages

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Patrol Rifle Practicality, Part II

Know what's important after your patrol rifle program gets off the ground.

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