Hostage situations and the police

Anyone who has ever traveled abroad as a tourist would know what it means to be vulnerable.  You cannot tell what is unusual from what is ordinary. You are unable to get into the rhythm of the society; you can neither understand its language nor figure out its manners.  In a lot of ways, you feel unprotected because you are away from home, from relatives and friends, and from your own government.  Losing an airplane ticket or a passport is troublesome enough.  One can just imagine what those unsuspecting Hong Kong tourists felt when an armed man in a police uniform suddenly boarded their bus and announced that he was taking them hostage.  It must be sheer terror – of the kind one sees only in the movies.

Having kept track of the other day’s hostage crisis from the moment it broke on radio to its tragic ending eleven hours later, I, like many, have much to say about the way it was handled.  I can’t blame people who have passed judgment based on what they have seen on media.  The police action seemed devoid of any method. The behavior of the media itself appeared at times reckless and irresponsible. Yet it is not the first time a situation like this has happened in our country.  We have seen all kinds of desperadoes call press conferences by holding innocent people at gunpoint.

Still, we must resist playing the role of the “Monday morning quarterback” – “a person, who after the event, offers advice or criticism concerning decisions made by others.”  It is the easiest thing in the world.  It doesn’t do justice to the enormous complexity of hostage situations.  By complexity I mean the extraordinary number of possibilities that a decision-maker has to choose from in order to bring the crisis to a desirable end. Such complexity tends to evaporate the day after the event, when everything appears so simple.

There is nothing simple at all about an armed person in police fatigues commandeering a tourist bus and holding its passengers hostage.  A situation like this is subject to multiple contingencies.  Anything can happen.  What the hostage-taker does is dependent on his mental and emotional state and his perception of what he’s doing and what’s happening.   It is also dependent on his perception of his victims’ demeanor and what they might do.  The actions of the authorities who are called to respond equally affect the dynamics of the situation.  To these we must add the overall environment in which the event takes place – the place, the weather, and in particular, the public reaction, as this is reported by the mass media.  These elements are all fluid — meaning, they can change any time, without any warning or notice.

What I found remarkable about the hostage situation at the Quirino Grandstand was the level of reflexivity of the hostage-taker, former senior police officer Rolando Mendoza.  He knew that what he was doing was a big mistake.  But, he was doing this, he said in a note he posted on the bus door, “to correct a big mistake in decision.” He was referring to his dismissal from the service by the Ombudsman.  A hostage-taker may either be fleeing, or he may be calling attention to himself.  This was one hostagetaker who wanted to talk.

If the basic police objective in such situations is the safety of the hostages, was it so costly to give him his few minutes before the media?  This, of course, is not entirely within the control of the police.  There are other offices to which they are answerable. The hostage-taker is also susceptible to panic, frustration, or anger.  He may at any point blindly vent these feelings on his captives. The best scenario is voluntary surrender and safe release of the hostages.  This usually entails providing guarantees that the hostage taker will be treated fairly.  Failing this, the only other option is to overpower the hostage-taker, taking care not to put the hostages in any danger.

We can assume that the police considered both scenarios.  But it was evident that they were mainly banking on the success of the first option.  This is understandable. The force is probably trying to live down its image as a pack of ruthless human rights violators. The police negotiators tried to accommodate every demand that Mendoza made. And for every demand they met, they asked that he reciprocate by releasing some of the hostages, especially the children and the aged.  He did.

Having fully invested in the peaceful option, the police might have underestimated the probability that the situation could abruptly take a turn for the worse.  They seemed unprepared to carry out a quick and precise assault.  One indication of this was the great difficulty they had in getting into the bus.

The police may have thought they were making significant progress in the negotiation. And so they were caught flat-footed by the side drama that the brother of the hostage-taker, Gregorio Mendoza, another policeman, staged in front of the media. The decision to take him into custody, caught on live TV and seen by the gunman inside the bus, could have triggered the shooting of the hostages.  We don’t know this for a fact. But of a few things we can be sure.

A hostage situation is always a media event, but it is primarily a police problem.  The safety of the victims and of the public in general takes precedence over everything else.  In such circumstances, the police is expected to assert total control of the situation, including the right to define the boundaries for media and everybody else.  Why the police appeared unsure about what to do is puzzling.  This is more than just ineptness or lack of training.  This is institutional paralysis.