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Pittsburgh negotiators new to Facebook wrinkle


February 17. 2013 3:36AM


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(AP) City police negotiators had never encountered a hostage taker who communicated publicly on Facebook during the ordeal, but say they'll train for the possibility in case it ever happens again.


A police commander and three negotiators involved in Friday's incident with 22-year-old Klein Michael Thaxton acknowledged as much Tuesday when they met with the media to explain how they do their jobs and, almost as importantly, how and why they don't do certain things when trying to defuse such volatile situations.


Thaxton, who remained jailed unable to post $1 million bond, faces a preliminary hearing Oct. 17 on charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and terroristic threats for the incident at a financial services firm on the 16th floor of Three Gateway Center, a 24-story office tower. Police have said Thaxton armed with a hammer and a kitchen knife held the firm's owner hostage at random after noticing the man had a smartphone and computer that enabled Thaxton to post Facebook messages lamenting his troubles.


"I think this incident brought this to light, and I think it's something we will train for in the future," said Lt. Jason Lando, who acted as a coach to the primary negotiator in touch with Thaxton, Officer Matt Lackner.


Police wouldn't detail their specific conversations with Thaxton, whose defense attorney didn't return calls for comment.


But, in general, Lackner said negotiating with a hostage taker is like "riding a see-saw" with the negotiator trying to "reduce the emotionality and raise the rationality" of their subject.


"When one goes down, the other goes up," Lackner said.


But, until police got federal authorities to intervene and shut down Thaxton's Facebook page about four hours into the more than five-hour ordeal, negotiators couldn't control how many other people might be riding that see-saw. Police have said Thaxton's posts drew about 700 responses, most from family members and friends expressing care and concern and the hope that he'd do the right thing. But other messages were "ridiculous," Lando said, and had the potential to incite Thaxton.


Lackner explained, however, that even seemingly positive messages could have posed a problem because police were primarily concerned with establishing a one-to-one rapport and building trust with Thaxton.


"Any outside influence is distracting and, generally speaking, does not help our cause," Cmdr. Scott Schubert explained. "We want our subject speaking to us."


The negotiators never lie or make false promises. They also don't focus much on the hostage taker's demands despite movie and TV portrayals to the contrary. "This isn't about fulfilling demands," Lackner said. "It's about satisfying (psychological) needs."


Although police were vitally concerned about the hostage's welfare, and did what they could to check up on him, the negotiators were careful not to ask Thaxton too much about his hostage.


"Clearly we're always very concerned about the hostage," Lando said. "But when we're doing negotiations, we have to make it all about the hostage taker."


Too many questions about the hostage and the suspect "might feel like, 'You don't care about me. You just want to say whatever you need to say to get this person (the hostage) out of here,'" Lando said.


Instead, negotiators try to find people the hostage taker cares about who will help the negotiator build empathy and which can sometimes help explain what prompted the standoff in the first place.


"People want to tell their story," Lando said. "Listening to them is a cheap concession."


In Thaxton's case, key issues were his inability to find a job and his feelings for an ex-girlfriend he hadn't seen since 2008. Police arranged for her to speak with Thaxton, but only once the hostage was released. Thaxton surrendered, and police were sure they could keep the woman safe with Thaxton handcuffed and in custody.


"We try to find hooks their schooling, work history, personal relationships," Lando said. "Oftentimes personal relationships are the source of why they find themselves in crisis."


Associated Press


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