Lt. Jack Cambria’s Gift of Gab Saves Hostages

Have you ever been in love? Had your heart broken? Have you known success in business? Failure, too? Then you might have what it takes to be a hostage negotiator.

“You must know love and success,” said Lt. Jack Cambria, Commanding Officer of the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team. Many hostage-takers are upset with something that has happened to them, whether that incident is a failed love affair, a lost job, or a streak of bad luck. “The negotiator will say, `I can talk to you about that. I’ve been hurt with love,’” Cambria said. “We get our best coping skills from life.”

In the world of hostage negotiations, Cambria is something of a legend. Dubbed “the officer with the gift of gab,” Cambria has talked would-be suicides down from tall buildings and bridges. Most of Cambria’s time, however, involves convincing a hostage-taker to release his hostages. When he isn’t talking to hostage-takers, Cambria is a sought-after instructor, consultant, and speaker. He was technical advisor for 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123, the remake of the original 1974 film. John Turturro’s character, Camonetti, was based on Cambria.

Recently, Cambria captivated the Mystery Writers of America’s New York chapter, a knowledgeable group that often makes a tough audience. He had backup up from two members of his team, Detective Elena Donnell and Detective Sgt. Craig Gardella. The skilled novelists hung on his every word. (Coming soon to a bookstore near you: a plot revolving around hostage negotiating).

NYPD’s Hostage Negotiation Team founded in March, 1973, was the first hostage negotiating team in the world. After deaths in three high profile incidents—1971’s Attica Prison riot, the 1972 “Dog Day Afternoon” Brooklyn bank robbery, and the takeover by the Palestinian Black September terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics—the NYPD set out to create a specialized well-trained unit. Cambria and his team have trained law and order professionals all over the world—from the Middle East to West Point, and at prestigious institutions, including Harvard and Yale. Cambria spent seven days putting the guards at Guantanamo through an intensive course. “Some of the terrorists in captivity will take hostages, attacking other prisoners and the people guarding them,” Donnell explained.

Donnell came to the hostage negotiation team after several other assignments, including serving as a personal bodyguard for a young Caroline Giuliani, when her father, Rudy, was mayor. (Giuliani, a former prosecutor, had received death threats from Colombian drug dealers and the safety of his family was an issue). Donnell was effusive in her praise of Cambria and how he runs the hostage-negotiating team. “He teaches with humility,” willing to share his failures as well as his successes, she said. “Through his mistakes, you become a better negotiator.”

Cambria displayed a mixture of humility and pride. “We probably do hostage negotiating better than anybody else because we’ve had more chances to get it wrong,” he said. “You learn when you get it wrong.” He stressed that anyone can become a hostage negotiator. “You have to be an active listener, hearing what’s being said and following that wherever it’s going,” he said. One thing to never say to a hostage-taker: “Just calm down!” That tactic, he explained, never works. Another mistake to avoid: calling the hostage-taker by the wrong name. “We always ask permission to address them,” Cambria said. “`May I call you Joe, or do you prefer Mr. Johnson?’”

Defusing a hostage situation is to ride an emotional wave. Holding someone prisoner produces a rush of adrenaline. Yet that level of high anxiety is difficult to maintain. The hostage negotiator takes advantage of these drops in energy to motivate the person to surrender. More often than not, the hostage-taker is mentally unstable and will probably be taken to a hospital for evaluation if he can be talked out. For others, jail is the eventual destination and Cambria said they don’t shy away from telling the hostage-taker what the future holds.

Cambria offered survival tips for the hostage: remain calm and accept your situation; don’t try to be a hero; don’t try to escape, unless you are sure you can succeed, and then think about it again; inform your captor if you have a medical issue; and run for cover if a rescue attempt is made.

Most hostage situations are domestic disputes, with a man holding a woman captive. The situations that often receive the most publicity are those involving terrorists and here, Gardella, delivered sobering news. “There’s no talking to them [the terrorists],” he said. “It’s a stalling process and the slightest hesitation sometimes works for us.”

About Charlene Giannetti (816 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 12 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.