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Mock hostage crsis tests officers

San Antonio Express-News (01/13/2005)

Roger Croteau

SAN MARCOS — Room 102 in the Hines Academic Center was undoubtedly the loudest room at Texas State University on Tuesday.

Close to a dozen men screamed obscenity-filled rants into the phones at the same time. Phones slammed onto receivers. One man took his phone and repeatedly smashed it against a garbage can.

"You lied to me," another shouted. "I don't want to talk to you any more, you ... Get me somebody else, or every single one of these people is gonna die!"

Each of the men was a trained hostage negotiator, playing the role of a man holding his business partner and four others hostage at his office. On the other end of the lines were hostage negotiation teams from police departments as far away as Oklahoma.

The 15th annual Hostage Negotiation Training and Competition at Texas State drew 300 officers and jail guards from 20 agencies for the three-day event.

The highlight of the seminar is the daylong mock hostage negotiation.

Eddie Klauer (right), leader of the San Antonio Police Hostage Negotiation Team, directs fellow officers Alex Garza (middle) and Jeff Ward during their negotiations in a mock hostage crisis at Texas State University on Tuesday.

"One day 15 years ago, the Austin and San Antonio teams got into a friendly discussion of 'My team's better than your team,'" said Wayman Mullins, criminal justice professor at Texas State. "I thought, 'Hmm, I bet I can come up with a way to settle this.'"

And the event was born.

The scenario this year was Mike Ryan, a small-business owner, taking his partner and four customers hostage after finding out his partner had been messing around with Ryan's 17-year-old daughter and posting photos of her on the Internet.

The teams got a briefing on the setup and went to work trying to talk their Mike Ryans into releasing the hostages and giving up.

It lasted about seven hours, with the officers playing Ryan all working from the same rough outline ? but with plenty of room to improvise. They each made the same demands at roughly the same times. By mid-afternoon, the collective Ryans were alternating between anger and depression and threatening to kill everyone.

Eventually, the Ryans gave up.

Three judges, also trained hostage negotiators, observed each team all day and rated them in various categories, including inter-team communications, brainstorming and intelligence gathering. The winning team will get a trophy at a banquet tonight.

By 11:30 a.m., most of the Mike Ryans had calmed down a bit. Troy Lott, a Live Oak police officer who played one of them, was paired with the San Antonio Police Hostage Negotiation Team.

"It's a lot of fun," he said as he waited for SAPD negotiators to call him back. "It's a learning experience for me, too, listening to how they deal with me."

Then the phone rang, and he went back into character, demanding that SWAT officers and news crews back off and they put his daughter on the phone.

"You're not doing anything for me," he complained to the officer on the line. "You haven't done one thing to help me."

Next to Lott, Louis Esquivel, a negotiator from the San Antonio team, played the Ryan role for a team from College Station. He said their negotiator was handling him pretty well, but he thought they had made a few missteps that morning.

"She said 'I understand what you're going through,'" Esquivel said. "That's kind of a no-no. She should have said 'Help me understand what you're going through.' I started screaming at her, 'Has this ever happened to you? How do you know what I'm going through?'

"And they haven't asked me to come out yet. It doesn't hurt to ask. We've been on calls when the first thing we do is ask, and they say 'OK.'"

But his biggest criticism was he caught the negotiator in a lie.

"She told me they were working on getting the photos off the Web site. Then later, she asked me for the Web site address again. How can they be working on getting the pictures down if they don't even know what Web site it is?" he asked.

"But it's OK for them to make mistakes here instead of during a real crisis."